IT IS to be hoped that Toby Stevens has less trouble with his real-life mum, Maggie Smith, than he has been experiencing with his fictional mothers on stage lately. Playing Hippolytus in Jonathan Kent's current production of Phedre, he splendidly signals the insecure, square-jawed heroics of a high-minded youth suddenly confronted by the incestuous passion of his step-mother. A matriarch continues to spell disaster for him in the same director's excellent modern- dress staging of Racine's Britannicus, an artly chosen companion piece which now joins Phedre in rep at the Albery.
This time Stevens plays the young emperor Nero, six months into a reign which will shortly topple from decency into bloody tyranny. He owes his eminence to his mother, Agrippina, who has committed all manner of crimes to put him on the throne, cunningly engineering the disinheritance of the rightful heir, Britannicus.
But now Nero has begun to resent being thought of as his mother's docile puppet. Their head-on struggle for power results both in ironic political somersaults (the affronted Agrippina intriguing with the very man she ousted) and in grave danger for the love between the heroic Britannicus and the virtuous Junia, which Nero contemplates with intense jealousy.
From his first bustling entrance, worriedly fiddling with his cuff and followed by some brutal-looking guards, Stevens's dark-suited emperor is a wonderfully sinister/pathetic mix of arrestedness and nervy assertiveness. There is something Cowardesque in his clenched delivery, and the stiffly imperious, cigarette-wielding poses. But you also keep catching glimpses of a sulky, uncertain little boy who looks as though he expects to be rebuked at any moment. There is an embarrassing, suppressed violence in him and you notice that while his hands hover hungrily over Joanna Roth's Junia, something inhibits them from actually touching her.
Emphasising the undignified gap between the image Nero would like to project and the Agrippina-thwarted reality, Stevens's performance bravely and rightly provokes uneasy laughter. Full of tortured, wall-clawing guilt as the eponymous stepmother in Phedre, Diana Rigg here draws upon her skills as a supreme mistress of high comedy to project the lofty disdain of Agrippina, whom she plays as a sophisticate with a sublimely imperturbable sense of her own entitlement.
Rigg creates a superb moment in the long private session with the son. Nero has been reduced to apparent tearful submission by the encounter and the shameless rapidity and completeness with which Rigg's Agrippina switches back from distraction to smothering, smiling possessiveness produces gasps of delighted outrage. The delight is short-lived, though. Agrippina is blind to the fact that her assurance is now baseless and this proves fatal for Kevin McDidd's emptily heroic Britannicus who, in this sardonic staging, walks into a trap up a staircase festooned with welcoming white flowers.
Robert David MacDonald's rhyming translation has vigour, velocity and moments of blackly comic balefulness. Pairing this play with Phedre is a smart and highly thought-provoking move, producing a Racine season which could, I suppose, go under the collective title "Some Sons Do 'Ave 'Em".