Phedre, National Theatre, London

Michael Coveney
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:04

Since she last appeared at the National six years ago, Helen Mirren has become a dame and played the Queen. So she's no stranger to the purple in Jean Racine's great classical 17th-century tragedy about a dysfunctional royal expiring with incestuous love for her stepson.

She wears a lot of purple, in fact, drifting on to the museum-like, pock-marked palace in the Peloponnese, in a full set of mauve veils, tugging at her jewellery and tearing at her own terrible obsession. Phedre is descended from the Sun, and Mirren is a randy old ray, even if she looks more like an anachronistic Brunhilde in her flaxen wig.

This is a very sedate version of a passionate tragedy. It plays for two uninterrupted hours and feels like something devised for groups of tourists on the South Bank. It has nothing much to do with Racine.

Ted Hughes's supple text is a fair stab, but a wrong one. You simply don't get the tragic tread of the French alexandrines in a bolshie arrangement of free verse with the odd iambic pentameter thrown in.

At least handsome Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus has a bit more to do than when he last knocked around the Mediterranean in Mamma Mia!. And he's very good. Everyone's very good. They're just all acting in something very bad, a thoroughly traduced and reverentially presented "classic". Phedre is supposed to be consumed by her own sunshine. Instead, Mirren opts for decorous restraint, as if suggesting that passion is best implied not spoken. That's simply not what happens in Racine.

There are one or two admirable performers such as wonderful Wendy Morgan as Panope and cheeky Chipo Chung as Aricia's attendant. Aricia, the political prisoner with whom Hippolytus has fallen in love, is well done by Ruth Negga. And Theseus is given lots of fizz and bottle by Stanley Townsend.

But you don't feel anyone's really sinking their teeth into anyone else, let alone Racine. Bob Crowley's design is a cunning architectural arrangement, with a cerulean backdrop and a portentous soundtrack by Adam Cork. It pokes you with its self-satisfied aesthetic beauty but it doesn't unleash the animal of art.

To 2 August (020 7452 3000;

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments