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Review: Helen Mirren in Phedre

12 June 09 09:14 GMT

By Tim Masters
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Helen Mirren takes the title role in this play by Jean Racine, translated by the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, at the National Theatre.

Having attained Oscar glory with her performance as The Queen, Mirren tackles a very different type of queen in this blood-drenched tragedy that was first performed in 1677.

Nicholas Hytner's new version benefits from not just a first class cast, but a breathtaking set - a marble palace drenched in Mediterranean sunshine, with a sky of holiday brochure blue that darkens as the ghastliness unfolds.

Mirren is perfectly cast as the queen who, believing her absent husband Theseus to be dead, is consumed by lust for her young stepson Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper).

'Incest and deceit'

It is a rollercoaster of a role: within minutes of her calm, veiled entrance, Mirren is on the ground - surrounded by torn-off jewellery, with tears glistening on her cheeks.

There are two standout speeches - her mad fantasy about helping Hippolytus find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth and later her deranged imaginings about his love for the captive princess Aricia (Ruth Negga).

"I stink of incest and deceit," spits Mirren, as she lurches towards her doom.

There is much to enjoy in Ted Hughes' muscular dialogue. (His version of Phedre premiered just weeks before his death in 1998.)

The word "monster" echoes throughout the play, almost to the point of overkill.

And beyond the words is an ambient rumble that rises ominously at key moments - giving the impression that the meddling gods of Greece are just out of view.

While Mirren's Phedre is a focal point, significant stage time is given to her scheming nurse Oenone (an impressive Margaret Tyzack) and to Hippolytus and his counsellor Theramene (John Shrapnell).

Shrapnell is outstanding, particularly when he gets to deliver the classic messenger speech towards the end - full of gory hyberbole.

Cooper's brooding Hippolytus appears to have borrowed Coldplay's stylist and spends much of the play looking gorgeous in military chic.

At one point he strips down to a black vest top just as Phedre enters - as if to drive her that extra bit crazy.

The arrival of Theseus is a magnificent moment. Stanley Townsend strides onto the stage like a colossus and dominates the play thereafter.

Throughout its two hours Phedre generates a lot of nervous laughter, but ultimately leaves its audience feeling shredded. Hytner and his cast can consider this a job well done.

Those wishing to see Mirren's tragic queen on the big screen can do so on 25 June when the performance will be broadcast live via satellite to cinema screens around the world.

The production will also visit Epidaurus, Greece, in July.

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