- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2009

The Shakespeare Theatre’s audiences are usually attentive, but aside from a man doing his best imitation of the dwarf Sneezy during the denouement and the burble of “Bolero” from someone’s cell phone, there seemed to be a communal intake of breath during the nearly two intermission-less hours of “Phedre.”

Such is the power of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s riveting production of Jean Racine’s 17th-century classic tragedy starring Helen Mirren as the Athenian queen diseased by her consuming love for her stepson.

As played with majestic torment by Miss Mirren, Phedre is no common cougar. She does not lustily seduce Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper, ever the stoic morsel) after believing her husband Theseus (Stanley Townsend, playing the adventuresome king with Hemingwayesque brawn) to be dead. Instead, it is the mere thoughts of forbidden fruit that pollute her body and soul — and cause the domino tumble of horrific events that follow.

What’s mesmeric about Miss Mirren’s performance is watching Phedre’s struggle with the extremes of her nature — the seismic base passions and the resolve to set her mind to a higher purpose.

For a brief moment, it appears nobility may win out, but then — in a scene played cannily by Miss Mirren — jealousy over learning Hippolytus is in love with the captive princess Aricia (a radiantly grounded Ruth Negga) unleashes all the vanity and sour desire within her.

Modern audiences might think “So what? It’s not like they’re having an affair or anything,” but Racine’s psychological slant to the play — adapted by poet Ted Hughes into vigorous blank verse — brilliantly conveys the almost supernatural power of thoughts.

The devastation in “Phedre” is done through insinuation, accusation, and rash outbursts. Urged on by her self-serving nurse Oenone (Margaret Tyzack, in a performance of astonishing force), Phedre blurts out her love to Hippolytus, who rushes to wash himself, either because he’s disgusted or perhaps to cool down a strange surge of desire. You never really know, another intriguing spin by director Nicholas Hytner on the normally clear-cut approach many theaters take with Greek tragedy.

Phedre’s confession is echoed later on in the play by a similar unfortunate outburst by her husband. After Oenone implies it was Hippolytus who lusted after his stepmother, the explosive Theseus implores the gods to curse his son — falling to his knees in the sand and spilling red wine as an offering, it is such a terrifying moment the light seems to go purple with foreboding. The effect of this curse is recounted by Hippolytus’ counselor Theramene (John Shrapnel) with such visceral alacrity you fear the stagehands are grappling in the wings with gods and monsters.

You feel completely transported to ancient Greece during “Phedre,” a time when Greek deities dallied with humans and interceded on their behalf. This could be partially attributed to Bob Crowley’s spectacular set, an overhang of sun-splashed blond marble against an Aegean-blue sky, enhanced by Paule Constable’s lighting. Mostly, you get caught up in the relentless tension and the intensity of the actors, who approach the piece as if it were a succulent family disaster blowing up before their very eyes.

★★★★

WHAT: “Phedre,” by Jean Racine, in a version by Ted Hughes

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 610 F St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

TICKETS: Sold out

PHONE: 202/547-1122

WEB SITE: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org

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