We all bring our own personal baggage to the theatre when we watch a play; in my case, Racine is one of a trio of playwrights (the others being Moliere and Chekhov) who were regular victims of my essay-writing at university. I can't remember what I wrote about Phedre 40 years ago, but many of the original lines of Racine's play have stuck in my memory. Eleven years ago I saw Diana Rigg on stage in the title role of the queen who falls in love with her stepson Hyppolitus and sends him to his death. I'd like to say Dame Diana was unforgettable, but all I can recall from 1998 are vague memories of a sizzling performance. My recollections of her playing Medea in the same West End season are a bit sharper. Four days before making my way to the National Theatre to see this play, I was soaking up the sunshine on an island in the Mediterranean, so I felt a strong pang of post-holiday nostalgia when I saw the Lyttelton stage transformed into a sun-baked terrace with a shimmering blue background and a rocky outcrop. This production by Nicholas Hytner uses the same translation by Ted Hughes of Racine's Phedre as the 1998 revival with Diana Rigg. In the original French, the power of Racine is entirely in the hypnotic effect of the alexandrines, a precise classical form within which the words convey aqnd confine shattering emotions and violence. It's impossible to reproduce in English, and Hughes quite rightly made no attempt to try. His version is earthily English and very raw. Hytner too makes no attempt to mimic the classical French style of tragedy, where physical action is kept to a minimum; but he's a director who never over-eggs the pudding and knows that less is often more. So when the bloodstained body of Hippolytus is dragged on stage at the end, leaving a red smear in its wake, it's a taboo-breaking moment. Such scenes are routine in Shakespeare but totally outside the French classical canon, which doubles the impact. Bob Crowley's design transports the play away from 17th century France and into a world which is recognisably the modern Mediterranean. The guards wear combat fatigues while the women's dresses have an echo of ancient Greece. Normally I am left uneasy by this kind of mixture, but in this production it works well. Helen Mirren is just spellbinding as Phedre; her vocal technique is so good that every syllable, even delivered in a whisper, is audible right up in the Lyttelton circle. Phedre moves from tormented guilt when she confesses to loving Hippolytus to fevered jealousy when she learns that he is in love with the imprisoned princess Aricia. The last time I saw Mirren on stage at the National was a decade or so ago when she played Cleopatra to Alan Rickman's Antony -- not a combination that struck many sparks. Mirren only hit top gear once her lifeless Roman partner was safely out of the way. Here, by contrast, she's at maximum velocity throughout. 'Phedre is an express going trhough the station without much declaration - you either jump aboard cleanly or you miss it,' Ted Hughes said. In other words, it's like 20/20 cricket, where the players don't have a few overs at the start to play themselves in. They have to reach the right level of intensity from the start, and maintain the pitch for two hours without an interval. Stanley Townsend is terrific as a muscular Theseus returning from slaughtering and swyving abroad, while the veterans Margaret Tyzack and John Shrapnel are a joy to watch in the roles of the confidants Oenone and Theramene. Newcomer Ruth Negga shines brightly in the role of Aricia, and Dominic Cooper (last seen here as one of the History Boys) plays Hippolytus with an adolescent swagger that gives way to disgust when his stepmother declares her passion. Physically, he is convincing, but swallows some of his lines which aren't always audible.
This production is a sellout but can be seen shortly on cinema screens nationwide. Helen Mirren hardly needs my fawning admiration at this stage of her career, but for my money there is no other actress who manages to combine her complete mastery of stage, TV and big screen. Racine is a difficult but deeply rewarding dramatist, and it's fantastic to see his plays come alive on stage rather than just reading them on the page. I will have to look in the loft and see if any of my essays on Phedre have survived.