Theatre: Rigg stirs audience with guilty desire

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THE FLAME-COLOURED wig is a bit of a mistake - its cut too reminiscent of the one modelled so heroically by Fenella Fielding for the past 30 years. But there is not much else wrong with Diana Rigg's portrayal of Racine's Phedre, the woman with a fatal passion for her upright stepson.

From the moment she enters Jonathan Kent's powerful production - shielding her eyes from the prying sunlight and feeling her way along the wall as though half dead with mortification - she delivers a deeply unsettling study of a woman consumed with shame, passion and illicit desire.

It is not often that you get two high-profile interpretations of this great work opening within a week and Kent's production provides great contrast to Luc Bondy's, which was performed last week at the Edinburgh Festival.

Bondy gave the play a tranquil, austerely beautiful marine setting, as if to emphasise that tragedy is not fussy about where it strikes.

But in the oppressive, steeply raked gallery where Kent's Phedre takes place, an ominous note is struck from the outset by a statue of Venus - the goddess who has victimised the female line in Phedre's family - which presides over the proceedings and is spookily illuminated in the black-outs between acts.

Rigg has always excelled at playing women who refuse to take refuge in illusions about themselves and Phedre is, of all heroines, the one who is most remorselessly eloquent on the subject of her own guiltiness.

The best moment in Rigg's performance comes in the scene where Phedre receives the hardest blow of all - the news that her stepson is not doctrinally indifferent to all women, but has finally fallen in love with someone else.

At this point, Bondy's Phedre, Valerie Freville, let out a strangulated animal howl of anguish. Rigg, however, graduates her response more tellingly. She mulls over the information with a tight, ghastly smile, like someone getting the measure of a sick joke, before launching into a frantic fever of jealousy.

The most stunning moment in the production comes when her confidante (Barbara Jefford) tries to comfort her by pointing out that there would be no future in the stepson's love for the young woman. "Yes, but their love exists. It exists," exclaims Rigg, giving these few simple words a terrible weight of wonder, hurt and dismay.

In the last scene, Freville crawled on her belly like an exhausted serpent and died abjectly, face down in a heap of sand.

Rigg's Phedre, having confessed all to her husband Theseus (Julian Glover), dies sitting upright and staring directly at the sun, even as she declares, in Ted Hughes's tough, unrhyming avalanche of a translation: "Now the sun's light at last/Can resume its purity unspoiled".

Having hidden under veils, she is now seeing her tragedy through to the end.

As Hippolytus, the young object of her infatuation, Toby Stephens is much better than his pretty-boy counterpart in the see-through shirt in Bondy's production.

"A single surge has swept me from myself," cries this character, whom love has suddenly turned from a righteous prude to an ill-at-ease romantic. Stephens makes the cack-handed intensity of his overtures to Aricia (Joanna Roth) almost touchingly comic. In his frightfully Boy's Own upper-class accent and in the affronted manliness of his poses, he also reveals a youth who seems to have spent his life compensating for an absentee father who is a legendary, womanising hero.

It is an impressive production which whets the appetite for the company's version of Racine's Britannicus, which opens in late October.