I like a tragedy me and the ancient Greeks were a bit partial too hence why they wrote so many. But the tragic element to Phedre which playing at the National Theatre is well a little too ancient Greek for my taste.
As hubby is thought dead she decides to confess to her feelings and is rejected. Then hubby returns and in an attempt to hide her incestuous confession tells him that Hippolytus came on the her. Now Daddy being quite angry banishes son but not before he invokes Neptune to curse him. Hippolytus meanwhile decides to confess his love to Aricia (Ruth Negga) whom his father has banned him from marrying and plans to run off with her. Phedre discovers Hippolytus is in love she falls into a jealous rage.
Now I thought I could tell where it was going from there (spoiler alert) knowing that Phedre and Hippolytus end up dead there surely had to be some sort of accidental/remorseful death or bloody incident akin to the ending of Hamlet.
Well no it's a Greek tragedy you see so Neptune does the dirty work and Hippolytus is attacked by some mysterious sea creature which smashes his chariot leaving him to be dragged to his death by his horses. Phedre, remorseful, confesses and poisons herself. Now Hippolytus's death is all off stage - as is the way with Greek tragedy apparently - and recounted by his servant. The tale is vividly and grippingly told but for me the fantastical element stymied any feeling of tragedy I might have had. Phedre does spend most of the play being melodramatic and hysterical so I wasn't to sorry to see her go.
If I'd have written it I would have had more on stage death for a start and the leads would have had a bigger hand in their own demise*.
All this implies that I didn't enjoy it when I did, very much. I was on the edge of my seat. Mirren deftly swung from morbid depression to hysteria and Cooper played Hippolytus with a steely cold aloofness that led some in my party to accuse him of a lack of spark with his leading lady but I disagree. His character is described by other characters as being driven and determined to the point that when he confesses his love to Aricia it is with the violence of someone whose expression of feeling is like a bottle of shaken champagne uncorked and then recorked again.
The stage was appropriately of Grecian time, not with adornments but the white/cream stone and rock so common in the countries ancient monuments. The passage of time was shown via the lighting which went from midday glare and heat cast sharp shadows through dusk and evening to a soft morning sunrise that was beautiful.
It's not my favourite play by any stretch of the imagination but it was entertaining and I'm tempted to buy a copy to read which is higher praise than most productions get.
Here are some others views:
Guardian: "The strength of Hytner's production is that Phèdre herself, in Helen Mirren's forceful performance, is not so much a victim of the gods as of an unconquerable erotic obsession."
West End Whingers: "Though with the National’s resources the Whingers of course would have preferred and expected to see the scene where his chariot is attacked by a giant sea monster"
Independent: "Everyone's very good. They're just all acting in something very bad, a thoroughly traduced and reverentially presented "classic"."
*Perhaps Phedre in her fit of jealousy could stab Aricia, Hippolytus discovers her dying and tries to strangle Phedre his father bursts in and catches him in the act and stabs his son in order to protect his wife. Phedre distraught that the object of her affection is dead confesses and kills herself. Leaving the King with a big dry cleaning bill and a bit sad that he killed his own son. What do you think?"