Clare Higgins is sick as a dog and as feral too. Playing the titular doomed queen in Racine's neo-classical and proto-Freudian tragedy, she drags herself on stage as if she's got terminal flu, haggard, open-mouthed and wrapping herself in a wolf-grey matted robe. Squinting at the sunlight, she slumps on a bench and struggles to keep mum regarding her dark secret. But the virus is Venus and eventually - nagged by her old nurse, Linda Bassett's Oenon - Higgins confesses and croaks out the name of Hippolytus, the stepson for whom she burns with an incestuous love. Alas, the devastation is even greater when, misinformed that her husband Theseus is dead, she rallies and summons the prince.
Following up on her Olivier-winning performance as Hecuba (also at the Donmar, in 2004), Higgins again proves that she is the most ferociously harrowed classical actress of her generation. She knows exactly how to handle both the shattered and the sinuous poetic rhythms of Frank McGuinness's new English adaptation. At the same time, Phaedra's raw desperation and jealousy course through her. Contrary to notions of stiff Racinian proprieties, her scene of suicidal fury is savagely impassioned, almost manhandling Ben Meyjes's disgusted Hippolytus into stabbing her.
Tom Cairns production has some weaker elements, not least his scrappy self-designed set: a sand dune in one corner, a cod ancient drinks cabinet in another, crazy paving glued round the portal and a scrim for hazy oceanic video footage bang in the middle. Replacing Paul Nicholls (who had to withdraw due to an actual virus effecting his throat), Meyjes got off to a stilted start on press night yet grew increasingly fiery. Michael Feast as Theseus was, inversely, underpowered at the close but vigorous and snaky beforehand, looking like a death's-head in a leather coat.
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