Dominic Cooper and Helen Mirren
in Phedre
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Dominic Cooper and Helen Mirren
in Phedre
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Since her last appearance on stage, Helen Mirren has picked up an Oscar for her performance as Queen Elizabeth. Now, She returns to the theatre in another regal role as the Queen of Athens, in the National Theatre's only intermittently gripping production of Jean Racine's Phedre. And while Mirren is elegantly tormented as Phèdre, her wrath seems more compelling than her passion.

Director Nicholas Hytner has selected a translation of the text by the poet Ted Hughes which replaces Racine's formal couplets with a rawer, looser language. Believing wrongly that her husband, Theseus (Stanley Townsend), is dead, Phèdre confesses her passion for her step-son Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper), a passion that has left her drained and longing for death. Hippolytus recoils at his stepmother's attentions; the son of an Amazon he has shunned women until recently when awoken by his desire for Ruth Negga's Aricia (a character created by Racine), the granddaughter and only living descendent of Erectheus, the former king.

As the sole survivor of the House of Pallas, her very existence is a threat to Theseus' reign -- and she has been allowed to live only on the condition she never marries. When Theseus returns home and it seems his wife's betrayal will be revealed to him, Phèdre's elderly nurse Oenone (Margaret Tyzack) schemes to save her mistress. Her unwise actions set in motion a chain of events that lead inexorably towards tragedy.

Even in Hughes' version of the text this remains a rather rigid play. The actors engage with the material in a range of different ways and some of the performances are more successful than others, Townsend is a booming, bombastic Theseus -- his gestures sweeping and his voice thunderous as he calls down a curse from the gods upon his son. Cooper, on the other hand, plays Hippolytus with a casual, near-naturalism that is perhaps too low-key in comparison. John Shrapnel, as Hippolytus' counsellor Theramene, seems most comfortable with the demands of the text and is utterly convincing in his shock and devastation as he describes the bloody demise of his charge.

Designer Bob Crowley's set is incredibly striking, filling the stage with sun-scored stone gashed with brilliant blue sky. Adam Cork's ominous sound score also contributes considerably to the atmosphere of the piece. Despite Hytner's two hour production being played straight through, he manages to mostly maintain a sense of tension and of impending, inevitable tragedy throughout the piece. But it also feels as if he hasn't exploited the potency of the play as much as he might have.