Helen Mirren chucks herself from one side of the Lyttelton’s stage to the other like a deranged fishwife
Oh dear. Just as we lull ourselves into thinking that maybe the French have a playwright to rival Shakespeare, up comes Phedre, the National‘s first Racine in a lifetime, to destroy any such notion. For this adramatic blowhard to attain any kind of stature can only indicate what a dry well the French draw their classic drama from.
And that is before we even get to Helen Mirren, chucking herself from one side of the Lyttelton’s stage to the other like a deranged fishwife (back to Peter Grimes with you!), and Dominic Cooper, who is in imminent danger of being sued by planks for identity theft.
Drawing on Euripides‘ Hippolytus (a play aggravating in itself), Racine finds Phedre mid-obsessive passion for her stepson Hippolytus, egged on by Baldrick-like nurse Oenone (the splendidly natural Margaret Tyzack always has a new plan). Hippolytus rejects Phedre, who avenges herself by convincing Theseus, her husband and Hippolytus’ father, of the boy’s guilt; a curse follows and all we have to do is wait – and wait – and wait – and wait – until disaster strikes.
What we ought to realise is that disaster struck the moment the lights went down. It’s no surprise that longeur is a French word. Interminable speech tumbles out after interminable speech, each side battering rhetoric until it finally gives in. People stand still and speak, or they wander about aimlessly and speak, but this is all.
There is no tension, no worrying about what will come next, which can be true even with plays we’re very familiar with. This is drama where you positively cannot care what comes next because it is so static and will undoubtedly be just more speechifying without action.
There can also be little doubt that most tickets were sold because Helen Mirren was in it. Unfortunately, she either took the staginess of Racine to heart and decided to ham it up or she just forgot that naturalism is an effective way of acting. Screeching and getting angry are not her full range, so why let her limit herself? Those even passionately in love are not constantly hysterical.
On the other hand, Dominic Cooper gave the impression of having had his soul Botoxed (along with his face): he could not muster a word or an expression with any emotional weight, and when Phedre describes him as ‘lovable’, you wonder if she was talking about his understudy, or some person unknown to us. Perhaps she was thinking of the nice person who made her purple veil with which she is wreathed like a Silk Cut widow.
Nick Hytner deserves some praise for taking the play out of the seventeenth century drawing room and into a vaguely Greek coast, but it is beyond even Hytner’s capabilities to inject life into it. While you can level the speechifying charge against Greek tragedy, it at least has the rapid-fire interchange of stichomythia; Racine just lets his cast speak in chapters.
It was a painful evening at the National, one which could quite easily put off any rare visitor to the theatre from returning. This is its greatest crime: it makes you like theatre slightly less.