(Henry Hitchings's article appeared in The London Evening Standard 6/12.)

Dame Helen Mirren sets pulse sprinting in Phèdre

Jean Racine's 17th-century tragedy is a handsome study of the destructiveness of love, and the central role of Phèdre — the Queen of Athens, here realised by Helen Mirren — is psychologically rich.

This is the story of a woman who, while her husband Theseus is mysteriously absent, falls in love with her stepson, the sexily post-adolescent Hippolytus. It’s a passion doomed to have grave consequences.

The male characters in Racine’s play are important. Half of it is about a son who believes he has lost his father, half about a father who believes he has lost his son. Yet it’s the two men’s connections with Phèdre that impel the drama inexorably.

We don’t see Phèdre and Hippolytus together until 40 minutes into the play’s two hours (there is no interval), but when the moment comes it is electric. After Phèdre declares her feelings for her stepson, he has to take a shower to cool off — the production’s one snatch of pure comedy.

The most compelling moment comes later when Theseus tells Phèdre that Hippolytus’s affectations have gravitated elsewhere: an ashen Mirren registers the information and then, alone, feels beneath her ribcage for the “smouldering” resentment that threatens to “burst into hard flames”.

Phèdre’s passions are complex, and she sees herself as unreadable. Indeed, the whole of Racine’s play is clouded by uncertainty. Mirren evokes Phèdre’s conflicted identity with skittish command. She is a heroic lover, yet also viciously self-lacerating, capable of being rhapsodic, delicate, hysterically imploring, tyrannically possessive, haunted and ultimately quavery and spectral. Dominic Cooper’s Hippolytus is an idler with a gift for lofty rhetoric.


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