For 30 years, the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has been obsessed with Jean Racine's Phaedra, which is based on Euripedes' drama about the queen who falls madly in love with her stepson. "I first read it in French when I was a 19-year-old student," says McGuinness. "I was drawn to its wildness."
It took McGuinness six months to write, "'sitting at my kitchen table" at his home near Dublin, always "with Clare Higgins's voice in mind". Higgins won the Olivier award for best actress for her performance as Hecuba in McGuinness's last play at the Donmar Warehouse, and the playwright eulogises her "fearless approach to work" and says that, "like Phaedra, she has the gift to be able think and feel at the same time.
"Phaedra is a woman who is possessed by this passion for a younger man. It takes total control of her existence. She can see nothing but this love. It is a study of what happens when you surrender yourself to this emotion," says McGuinness. "She is also a very intelligent woman, she is constantly analysing what she is going through." There is plenty of sexual tension in the play: "If there is no temptation and there is no possibility that the stepson would have a sexual relationship with her, then there is no meaning to the play."
For McGuinness, the most challenging aspect of writing Phaedra after the example of Racine was to achieve the necessary "spareness of the writing. That is a big linguistic demand."
What has held his fascination for so long? "Racine really is capable of going into the very darkest recesses of the human heart and he hears what is happening. I don't think anybody else has the courage to do it with such power. There is no hiding place for Racine: you are right in there from the word go. He spares you nothing. I love that intensity and that discipline. It is a rigorous intellectual and emotional examination of what it is to be human."
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