Unfolding on a gorgeous exterior -- a sun-washed stone terrace set against a sapphire-blue Mediterranean sky -- the Royal National Theatre's "Phèdre" proves to be a riveting descent into the pathology of a woman terminally diseased with love.
That the woman passionately in extremis is played by Helen Mirren makes the night at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall all the more giddily intense: The show is a heady nail-biter. Under the psychologically intuitive direction of Nicholas Hytner, Mirren takes to feverish heart Racine's idea of the Athenian queen as a captive of her longings, and convinces us utterly that a rash of ardor can devastate the body as surely as any airborne infection.
Reviewers of the production's London run took note earlier this summer of some performance wobbles. For the show's sold-out Washington engagement -- its only stop in this country -- whatever bumps existed must have been smoothed over. Mirren's fierce and vulnerable Phèdre is matched not only by the formidable Margaret Tyzack, as the queen's nurse and lifelong maternal surrogate, Oenone, but also by the dynamic Dominic Cooper, a budding big-screen heartthrob, who embodies with virility the stoic object of Phèdre's lust, her stepson, Hippolytus.
On some evenings, the raw inevitability of Greek tragedy can come across to audiences as sere and colorless; directors and actors become oh so reverent, and the oratory rings hollow precisely because everyone is intimidated by it. Hytner's cast, to its credit, treats the story first as a juicy court scandal, a lively tale of a family -- a royal one, for sure, but also intriguingly fallible -- undone by suspicion, selfishness and vanity.
As a result, you can watch, with some breathless fascination, as the tumblers click in the minds of these actors, and they consider their characters' next moves in this play of plots and dodges. In the surprising pedal-to-the-metal acceleration of Tyzack's performance, you discover step by methodical step the depth of Oenone's resourcefulness. In the delicate yet grounded countenance of Ruth Negga's comely Aricia, the imprisoned princess whom Hippolytus loves, one feels the measured pulse of a true survivor.
And in Mirren, swathed in flowing purple gowns and robes, you're always kept entertained by the war in Phèdre's nature, between an urge to surrender to the embittering blackness of her thwarted desires and the better impulse, to try to live with them. This queen in torment is no downer. At the pivotal moment, when her volatile husband, Theseus (Stanley Townsend, looking like a marauding relation of Tony Soprano's), stuns her with the revelation of Hippolytus's feelings for Aricia, Mirren's Phèdre cocks her head ever so warily. A giggle arises from the audience: In such small gestures can enormous alarm bells seem to go off.
Modern filters have been applied to the original Euripides drama, and they allow "Phèdre" to be tantalizingly up-to-date; the mostly earth-tone costumes -- like the amazing set, both designed by Bob Crowley -- are vaguely contemporary. Racine composed his 17th-century version in 12-syllable rhymed couplets, but Hytner uses a free-verse translation by the late English poet Ted Hughes that exudes musicality and accessibility. A tension-enabling sound score by Adam Cork supplies rumbles and other ominous noises that suggest that trouble is brewing.
The disturbance has to do with the impatience in a massive villa in the coastal city of Troezen -- where Phèdre and her sons are the guests of Hippolytus -- over the disappearance at sea of Theseus. Prompted by a false report of the king's death, Oenone plants in the ear of Phèdre, so racked with desire for Hippolytus she wants to do herself in, the notion of confessing her love to him.
In Theseus's unexpected return, Oenone's self-serving scheming becomes tragic overeagerness. And when she acts preemptively again, lying to the king that it was Hippolytus who attempted to seduce the queen, the foundation of destruction is fully laid.
"Phèdre" conveys the idea of thoughts having elemental power, that they do speak as loudly as actions. Although the transgressions in the play are mere acts of confession and accusation -- no more concrete than the whispers of distant thunder -- the consequences could not be more terrible. In one of the evening's most effective speeches, John Shrapnel's Théramène, a close adviser to Hippolytus, recounts for Theseus the gut-wrenching story of the horrible fate that befalls Hippolytus. And all because Theseus rashly uttered his own unforgivable wish.
Townsend's brute of a Theseus arrives as a bit of a shock to us as well as to the other characters: Towering over the actors, speaking in the rough-hewn accent of the North of England, he seems less a king than a pirate. Then again, he's a man of war, accustomed to earthier concepts of strategy, and out of his league with the sly intriguing by the likes of Oenone.
He seems, too, an unlikely match for Mirren's regal Phèdre -- which may be why she's drawn with such violent need to the more self-contained son (even if his mother was an Amazon). In any case, the moment at which she finally touches Hippolytus evokes nothing so much as sadness, although to the young man it's an encounter so revolting he has to rush to a fountain to cleanse himself of it.
Or maybe, he was a little turned on? This fast-moving production does not merely engage the imagination, it ignites it.
Phèdre, by Racine, translated by Ted Hughes. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Paule Constable; company voice work, Jeannette Nelson and Kate Godfrey. With Wendy Morgan, Chipo Chung, Ian Pedersen, Portia Booroff, Alexander D'Andrea, Tristram Wymark, Elizabeth Nestor. About two hours. Through Sept. 26 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. The entire run is sold out.