Even with advance booking this wasn't the easiest thing to get tickets to, as Dame Helen Mirren returns to the National to take the title role in Racine's Phèdre. Judging from the squeaks from the girls behind me as the curtain came up, the presence of History Boy (but now better known for Mamma Mia) Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus can't have hurt ticket sales either. Not that I can blame them, he was wearing a black vest in the opening scene and they're only human. Incidentally, before going in I spotted Andrew Knott presumably about to go and see the play as well, which means I've now spotted half the HBs in the wild. Sporty, Gay, Religious and Other down, only Black, Asian,¹ Fat and Slutty to go. (@merseytart on Twitter claims none of it counts unless I shag one, but since Tovey won't come anywhere near the handkerchief with the chloroform on it, I'm at a loss.)
Oh, hang on, this was supposed to be a review of a big devastating tragedy, wasn't it? Oh well, the reviews have actually been subdued, many of them saying Mirren doesn't live up to Diana Rigg in the same role, but as I didn't see that production I don't need to make that comparison. I'd say Mirren's very good but not mind-blowing. Out of The Big Two Dames I have to say Dame Judi still wins, despite Madame de Sade. Anyway, Cooper's also surprisingly good, but the standout for me was John Shrapnel, an actor I've not always warmed to, as Hippolytus' counsellor Theramene - both moving and damning in his speech of his master's appalling death. On which note, after a production of Euripides' Hippolytus a few months ago where the character re-entered with his costume still pristine, Nicholas Hytner's production doesn't shrink back from the body horror of how the character ends up, with what gets dragged onto the stage at the end being little more than a bag of meat. Racine's alteration to the story, adding the character of Aricia whom Hippolytus falls in love with to Phèdre's dismay, makes him a much more sympathetic character than Euripides' vicious misogynist, so his demise is more devastating. Margaret Tyzack is as good as ever in the small but pivotal role of Oenone.
Paule Constable's lighting makes good use of light and shade on Bob Crowley's set which evokes the story's original setting in the Pelopponese, although I can see the point of many reviewers who said the walls look like cheese. A very tense production, well-pitched and wisely running without an interval so it doesn't let up the pace, this was always going to have trouble living up to the build-up but it's impressive nonetheless.
Phèdre by Jean Racine in a version by Ted Hughes is booking until the 27th of August at the National Theatre's Olivier stage, and on the 25th of June will be shown live in cinemas around the world.
¹bless Alan Bennet but let's face it, the two non-white History Boys aren't exactly overflowing with other character traits. At least they're better off than Knott, aka Other History Boy. No distinguishing features whatsoever. The best I can come up with is Dead History Boy but that only happens in the epilogue so it's hardly a character trait.