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Racine’s ferocious drama of the human heart in extremis is a gruelling spectacle

The programme for this powerful, no-tricks, high-end production of Racine’s version of Phèdre includes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, the one that begins: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/Is lust in action”. I can see why it is there, as thwarted lust accounts for a large part of the evening that lies ahead, but it is also misleading. The Greek myth of Phaedra, who falls in love with her stepson with tragic consequences while her husband, Theseus, king of Athens, is away, has repeatedly intrigued dramatists from Euripides and Seneca onward. But in Racine’s version, it is not just sexual love that propels the tragedy, but other varieties, too: paternal love (turned to hate), maternal love (described as a “contagion”) and the devoted love of a servant for her mistress.

The poem I was reminded of was the one by Ted Hughes about how love flew into his life “like a hawk into a dovecote”. Here, love is feral. Describing how she fell for young Hippolytus, Phèdre, played by Helen Mirren, exploring every corner of human despair in a landmark performance, says her whole body was “scorched”, her eyes went dark, and she could hardly stand. This is a woman bowled over by love, and not in a good way. “I knew then the goddess [Venus] had found me – The latest in the lineage that she loathes. I had fallen into her furnace.”

Later, Hippolytus reports his hardly less problematic love for Aricia, sole survivor of his father’s massacre of a family with a claim to the Athenian throne. A single wave has “swept me from myself”. That Aricia is played by Ruth Negga, a slip of an actress, adds to the point: this he-man (played in a sawn-off Die Hard T-shirt by Dominic Cooper, perhaps best known as the young male crumpet in Mamma Mia!) has been toppled by a force stronger than armies.

I think I would have had Hughes’s paradoxical words in mind even if I did not know this version had been translated by the poet, who turns rhyming couplets into muscular blank verse. The play’s similes are unmistakably his: “Venus has fastened on me like a tiger”; “my own horse run wild”; Phèdre’s loyal Oenone “slithers” up to Theseus to lie for her. You certainly cannot escape Hughes when Stanley Townsend eventually appears as Theseus, unexpectedly returned from the dead. This actor is so big, his accent so northern, his presence so great, that it is as if Hughes had been reincarnated.

I wrote last year of Jonathan Kent’s production of Oedipus straining to make an essentially wrong reading of the universe relevant and psychologically credible. Nicholas Hytner succeeds better here because his text – Racine channelled by Hughes – interrogates itself in a modern way. If all is determined by fate and petty-minded gods, why do we feel guilt for our emotions and deeds? This is what the characters want to know, even as they charge towards their tragic destinies.

Hughes called the play an express train “going through the station without much deceleration – you either jump aboard cleanly or you miss it”. But, grand as it is, and however stunning the staging (the littoral is dominated by a giant sandy rock that looks like a fist), it does not feel as if you have boarded a bullet train. The long, declamatory speeches, the unvaried intensity of the main performances, the method of “tell not show”, slows the train, so that in the end it feels like staring for two hours at a magnificent mainline station.

You look for recognisable human life and find it only occasionally. The moment when Phèdre turns on Oenone – who has consolingly offered the thought that the love between Hippolytus and Aricia is doomed – and replies: “Yes, but their love exists” is one such moment. Margaret Tyzack, who renders Oenone as a version of Margaret from The Apprentice, accounts for most of the others.

You need to see this play, but its pleasures are few. For me, one was this smugly patriotic thought: how lucky to have Shakespeare and not Racine as our nation’s playwright.

In rep until 27 August
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape