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Theatre: The mother of all dramas

Racine, Euripides, Benjamin Britten, Stevie Smith and Sarah Kane have all fallen for Phaedra,

the woman who fell in love with her stepson. Now it's the turn of Ted Hughes.

Tonight, Diana Rigg will take to the stage as Phedre at the opening of the new Ted Hughes version of Racine's great tragedy, directed by Jonathan Kent. It's not the first time, though, that she has played this tormented heroine - the Cretan wife of Theseus who succumbs to an incestuous, fatal passion for her righteously chaste stepson, Hippolytus. Some 23 years ago, Rigg starred in Phaedra Britannica, the Tony Harrison adaptation which propelled the action forward from mythical Greece to the British Raj of the mid-1850s. The divinities who rent apart Racine's characters became the gods of India, or, as the bewildered Brits continually cry, nearly "India" itself.

From Euripides to Stevie Smith, Benjamin Britten and Sarah Kane, the Phaedra legend has attracted many artistic responses and reworkings. Racine's play is, after all, itself indebted to versions by Euripides and Seneca. Not that there aren't aspects of the story that prove tough to pitch to a modern audience. The obdurate militant chastity of Hippolytus, for example, is meant, in the Euripides, to be seen as the defamation of a virtue, the love of purity taken to a hubristic, blasphemous extreme. But, to current perceptions, virginity seems about as sane and unlaughable an ideal as voluntary penury. As Jonathan Kent recalls, from an earlier Almeida production of the Euripides, audiences tend to think that Hippolytus has "something seriously wrong with him".

The most radical solution to this problem was provided by Sarah Kane in her 1996 play, Phaedra's Love which transposed the story to a present day, dysfunctional, British-seeming royal household. Here, far from being an athletic hunter, Hippolytus was a grungy, reclusive slob of a prince whose denial of love was expressed not in celibacy but in the indiscriminate indulgence of someone who treats sex as junk food. The ease with which Phaedra could get into his knickers - he grudgingly allowed his stepmother to give him a blow job, while idly scoffing takeaway fries and never allowing his eyes to stray from the TV set - threw cruel emphasis on the fact that, essentially, he was as remote as his Greek counterpart.

If Kane found an ironic modern equivalent for Hippolytus's impregnability, the Romanian director Silviu Purcarete, in his recent acclaimed reworking, got round the contemporary cultural difficulties by reducing the story to its primal elements in a timeless, moonlit landscape eternally policed by two opposed divinities. Artemis, the Goddess of Chastity, prophylactically bandaged in white from head to foot, stalked the stage like a high-stepping gazelle, with Aphrodite, a dumpy primitive predator whose face was hidden behind a curtain of hair. Underscored by a throbbing perpetuum mobile of sound on the cimbaloms, the piece gave a mesmeric sense of the Phaedra drama as an unending, mythic clash of absolutes. Impotent to strike a healthy balance between the conflicting forces, Lini Pintea-Homeag's amazing Callas-like Phaedra and Angel Rababoc's half naked, snortingly disdainful Hippolytus seemed to be destroyed by some impersonal, implacable and pitiless machine.

In his version of Phedre, Racine makes a significant adjustment. Here, the cold, pure hunter has himself developed a secret passion - for the invented character of Aricia. It's a choice certain to bring him into conflict with his father and to cause his stepmother agonies of jealousy when she discovers that he has rejected her advances not because he cannot love, nor simply because of the incest barrier, but because he loves elsewhere.

Jonathan Kent points out that, at its first performance in 1677, Racine entitled his tragedy, Phedre et Hippolyte, and "doesn't take Hippolytus's iconic status for granted. He makes him psychologically complex so that his brutal death, when it comes, seems the most terrible waste". I felt the force of these remarks, while watching a different production of Phedre brought last week to the Edinburgh festival by the brilliant Swiss director, Luc Bondy.

From such an exalted source, this was a surprisingly disappointing and underpowered occasion. A golden-gowned figure who whirls round repeatedly with an embarrassing, child-like giddiness after she has confessed her guilty secret to her confidante, Valerie Dreville was a reasonably impressive Phedre, her strangulated animal howl of anguish and incredulity, on hearing that Hippolytus loves another, acutely harrowing. But as the object of her wild infatuation, Sylvain Jacques was just a vacant pretty-boy, clad in a preposterous see-through shirt and seemingly possessed of all the moral complexity of an ex-member of Take That. So the climactic moment of their confrontation, when Dreville's Phedre arches right back and uncovers her breast before his sword, as if inviting him either to kill or to ravish her, was undercut. What principally preoccupied you was her shallow taste in men.

The evening was not helped by the surtitles which were full of ridiculous archaisms ("Wait not until a father's wrath force thee away amid general execration") that kept reducing the audience to stifled sniggers. In their own daft way, they bore out Jonathan Kent's point that "all translations are versions". This is particularly the case with Racine, since the consummate balance between formality and ferocity in his alexandrines is fiendishly difficult to reproduce in English verse.

Some formidable poets have responded to the challenge. Robert Lowell's 1961 version has been criticised for being too "post-Freudian", rendering sexually explicit what is merely suggested in Racine's verse. But this would seem to me the honourable course, if the alternative to that directness is a coy and clammy suggestiveness, such as was never the intended effect of the French. Here is how Lowell treats the climactic moment, referred to earlier. Begging Hippolytus for his sword, Lowell's Phedre cries: "Look, this monster, ravenous / For her execution, will not flinch./ I want your sword's spasmodic final inch", - a couplet where there's a shuddering conflation of orgasm and death in "spasmodic" and an unforgettable phallic swelling of "flinch" to "final inch". Nudging and mealy mouthed, this isn't.

Lowell, writing of Racine's verse, refers to "the glory of its hard, electric rage". That electric rage is strongly transmitted by the new Ted Hughes version in unrhymed verse. Jonathan Kent describes it as "a landslide of tough adamantine language. It's Racine seen through the prism of Hughes' genius". Throughout, Hughes gives further twists to the intensity of the piece. When Phedre talks of the nightmare impossibility of avoiding Hippolytus because he and her husband look so alike, in the original she actively monitors the resemblance. In Hughes' version she thinks of herself as the thing viewed in an oppressive, creepy surveillance exercise: "Everywhere I saw him staring at me / Through his father's features." Similarly, Phedre's feeling that having lost self-dominion through passion she's in no position to take charge of a state, here gains a powerful sense of both psychological possession and loss of political control. The heroine describes herself as "occupied by an enemy/ That hardly lets me breathe." The lines conjure up a ghastly inner stifling, different from the "shameful yoke" that leaves Racine's Phedre gasping. There's an unflinching verbal muscularity in the Hughes that an actress like Diana Rigg will surely relish.

Two high profile productions of Phedre within a week is a rare occurrence. Art is, of course, not a contest. However, if you want to think of it in those terms, the Bondy was so lacklustre that the Kent / Rigg Phedre has everything to play for.

The Almeida Theatre production of Phedre opens tonight at the Albery Theatre, London WC2 (0171-369 1730)