Theatre: The stepmother of all tragedies

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The Independent Culture


Via Dolorosa

Royal Court Downstairs

Television's great gift to theatre has been killing off naturalism. Television does it so much better. To be glib, the best way forward is backwards: towards myth, metaphor and language. How else could you explain the Almeida's exhilarating idea of reviving 17th-century French classical tragedy in the West End? Speechy, static and formal, Racine's arrives at the Albery for a season in rep with Racine's Britannicus. Art now takes up residence next door to Art.

It may seem perverse to recommend a show which stars Diana Rigg on the basis of its translation. We are still catching up with Ted Hughes's gift for narrative verse after his Tales From Ovid. Little needs to happen on stage when there's a swirling action-packed disaster movie - riddled with sex and violence - in Hughes's free verse.

There's grandeur and there's economy. Hughes matches in image, sound and rhythm, for instance, the massive wave that "towered above us, seeming to hang, / And there, in slow motion, / It collapsed, a solid fall of thunder." Then he strips lines back to the plain finality of Theremane's description of the dead Hippolytus: "I think his own father would not know him."

Jonathan Kent's strident production locates in a world that combines Louis XIV's France with the classical world. Maria Bjornson's design of a palatial hall has double doors at the top that frames figures before they plunge down the raked planks. Half the stage becomes an entrance and an exit. On one side runs a row of high windows, reminding us of the world outside. Through these, lighting designer Mark Henderson casts shafts of hazy light as if through prison windows. Blue walls hem in the actors, who paw against them. Dry ice drifts down the hall, echoing a line about "a mist of horror".

We glimpse rubies glittering on the fingers of Diana Rigg as she clasps the edge of the upstage door. It's a melodramatic moment. She is "convulsed with anguish", consumed with love for her stepson, Hippolytus. Pale, red-haired and bright-eyed, Rigg's hunched figure in black looks like a regal witch. One hand quivers in front of her mouth as if she is about to throw up. Rigg starts in fifth gear and rarely declutches. It's an enormously forceful performance that gives us more anguish than lust.

As confession follows confession - she loves Hippolytus and Hippolytus loves Aricia, the daughter of his father's enemy - the acts draw on the same dramatic unit as the Oscar ceremony: whose name is going to come out of the envelope next? As the secret object of Rigg's affections, Toby Stephens gives his best performance to date. It's not easy playing the son of an Amazon. If Stephens still looked overstretched as Coriolanus and Stanley Kowalsky, he has matured remarkably. He carries off scorn, pride and disgust with thrilling ease. His dynamic stage presence merits what others say. He even looks good in a chain-mail vest.

Kent buttresses these performances with a superb supporting cast. As Oenone, the scheming maid and confidante who encourages to lie to her husband, the formidable Barbara Jefford has an edge and force that equals her mistress. As the lofty, grizzled Theseus, Julian Glover mixes authority with unease and despair. While Joanna Roth's pellucid Aricia, manages to be statuesque and passionate. Most memorable of all is David Bradley, as Hippolytus's old friend, Theremane. He delivers his epic final speech, when he describes Hippolytus's death, with masterly precision, ending with bleak resignation - as Diana Rigg returns - "And here comes the cause of everything."

If there's only one way you can relax in this remorseless production it's in the knowledge that they won't put a foot wrong. They find a style that never jars. They achieve a depth and sobriety which enables them to stand motionless without appearing wooden. The strict adherence to the rules of French classical drama defies many of our expectations. When done at this pitch, these constraints release enormous energy. With no interval, we find ourselves locked into a rich and relentless 100 minutes.

A non-Jewish playwright in his fifties writes a monologue about the situation in the Middle East, and then stands and delivers it in front of a West End audience. Tempting fate? In Via Dolorosa, there's more. Arms fly, elbows flap, hands shoot, palms wave and fingers stab.

David Hare's enthusiasm as a performer only adds to the evening's appeal. Unlike the kind of actors who normally premiere his work, Hare's mind and Hare's body have not found a natural stage equilibrium. Inside the zealous inquisitor of conflicting attitudes in the Middle East, I kept catching glimpses of a more louche performer, yearning to break free and strut his stuff.

A tall, gangly figure with prep-school looks, Sir David enters from the back of an empty stage and crosses a gangway to a makeshift stage at the front. Two tables stand on either side, with Anglepoise lights and glasses of water. He wears a white shirt, black trousers and some moulded shoes. He beams. Once we're through the personal bits - cloying, as you might expect, because they have a rehearsed sincerity about them - we're away.

For 90 minutes Hare delivers a superior version of "What I Did On My Holiday". It's a 12,000-word travel piece about going to Israel and the Gaza Strip. As with many travel pieces by prominent figures, in most of the places he goes, people know who he is. Half the time he's chaperoned by the British Council. In Israel, they were doing his last play Amy's View. He talks to an Israeli politician, settlers on the West Bank, a Palestinian politician, a Palestinian historian, and so on. We get Benni Begin's View, Sarah Weiss's View, Haider Abdel Shafi's View and Albert Aghazerin's View.

Hare is rare among playwrights in stepping outside his front door and asking people what they actually think. He's always been an adroit retailer of other people's best lines. The most memorable gag in Pravda came from Harold Wilson's press officer Joe Haines telling him that Mickey Mouse wore a Rees-Mogg watch. On this trip he gets good quotes too. He's never predictable. The settlements on the West Bank remind him, for instance, of Santa Barbara or Bel Air. Driving there, he suddenly surprises himself that "the Jews do not belong here". What's more engaging still is the zest with which he re-enacts the conversations. Hare's no mimic. It's the thoughts he's after. But he's a good raconteur. He can be very funny about intransigence and then he can let rip. It's the vehemence with which he dramatises the conflicts within both sides that makes this a piece of serious stand-up.

`': Albery, WC2 (0171 369 1740), to 28 November. 'Via Dolorosa': Royal Court Downstairs, WC2 (0171 565 5000) to 3 October.