The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2009
Your appreciation of this National Theatre production will depend on your taste for grand Capital-A Acting.
If you want a lot of Acting for your money, you'll be pleased. But if you prefer some hints of recognisable human behaviour to connect and empathise with, you'll have to pick scattered moments from among the performances.
Phedre is the Greek queen who developed an overwhelming love for her stepson and, when rejected by him, achieved a tragic revenge. Euripides made the lad Hippolytus militantly celibate, his prudery so offending the gods that he shared some of the blame for his fate.
But in 1677 Racine gave Hippolytus a love interest, generating a romantic triangle, and also added a political element as Hippolytus, his princess and Phedre's son are rival claimants to the throne.
Despite working with a hard-edged adaptation by Ted Hughes, director Nicholas Hytner is only intermittently successful in guiding his actors toward making human drama out of the tragedy.
Helen Mirren is the leading practitioner of Grand Acting here, always reciting the poetry of her lines rather than just speaking them.
She does so with energy and intelligence, but her performance far too rarely escapes from empty recitation, accompanied by a full repertoire of Grand Acting poses, gestures, swoops of vocal melody or volume -that is to say, very visible Acting.
Almost the only time her Phedre acts like a real human being is late in the play, when she learns she has a love rival, and Mirren portrays ordinary but believable jealousy.
But Mirren is just the extreme example of a syndrome that infects others in the cast. Dominic Cooper has been directed to depict every one of Hippolytus's passions by the same sort of shouting, giving too much of his performance a single note.
For those who prefer small-a acting, with some semblance of real human behaviour and emotion, the most satisfying performances are by Ruth Negga as the rival princess and Stanley Townsend as the king.
Townsend plays Theseus as a thug or Mafia don, which may be a simple characterisation but a believable one, and his emotional journey is the most sympathetic in the play.
And Negga is the most successful at creating a rounded character, as a politically astute young woman who can be both coolly calculating and emotionally complex.
Always-reliable stalwarts John Shrapnel and Margaret Tyzack give the kinds of solid performances we have come to take for granted from them in supporting roles, when they remember to act rather than Act.
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