The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Theatre Spring 2006
This new version of the classic is Frank McGuinness' adaptation of Racine's adaptation of Euripides. That long journey involves some pluses and minuses, with the net result being a loss of focus and power.
This is the one about the queen who falls in love with her stepson. In Euripides she's obsessive and he's a bit of a prig, and so they're both punished by the gods, her for her passion and him for his denial of life.
Racine made this raw tragedy more complex by adding two elements. First, there's another girl, Aricia, whom Hippolytus loves. In itself, this weakens things, since Phaedra's passion is somewhat trivialised into jealousy and Hippolytus becomes a blameless victim.
Racine also adds a political element, giving Hippolytus, Aricia and Phaedra's sons competing claims to the throne. This is a mixed blessing, adding earthly texture to the tale of men and gods, and giving Hippolytus the chance to show his honourable side, but again it weakens Phaedra's position by contaminating her feelings.
Frank McGuinness' contribution is to replace Racine's high poetry with an eloquent but somewhat more natural language (with only the occasional slip in tone - 'top yourself,' 'lover boy,' 'scam'), increasing our inclination to respond to these characters on an earthly, realistic level.
The end result is that, for all the talk of gods and overpowering passions, much of the high tragedy is lost in what comes across as a fairly sordid soap opera whose only redeeming qualities lie in the undeserved and therefore pitiable suffering of the innocent figures.
Put another way, Phaedra herself retreats in importance while Hippolytus and the husband-father-king Theseus move to the fore.
Phaedra, played at full-tilt passion by Clare Higgins, does all the weeping and wailing, but Higgins doesn't overcome some of the artificiality that remains in McGuinness' language, and so she – and her confidante played with equal intensity by Linda Bassett - come across as just making pretty speeches through their tears, giving us little to relate to.
This is particularly noticeable since the men in the cast - Ben Meyjes as Hippolytus, Michael Feast as Theseus, Sean Campion as a companion - all do master sounding natural and conversational (or maybe McGuinness just wrote their scenes in a different style).
What it comes down to is that Hippolytus and Theseus seem real and Phaedra doesn't, and so we care more about them; Hippolytus and Theseus are innocent and Phaedra's motives are muddied, and so we feel for them and not for her; and the play as a whole has lost a lot of the high tragic level in which Phaedra's uncontrollable passion operated, and so she seems lost.
Everything Clare Higgins and Linda Bassett bring to their roles just isn't enough to overcome these imbalances, and the play is handed to the men. And their play is sad but not grand tragedy.
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