Phedre by Jean Racine
translated and adapted by Ted Hughes
National Theatre of Great Britain’s production
presented by Shakeapeare Theatre Company
Harman Center for the Arts
by Grace Cavalieri
During a brief two-week run in Washington, Helen Mirren is the draw to Jean Racine’s Phedre presented by Britain’s National Theatre. Let me say from the start that she played the spotlight far more for light than heat, (the smoldering and burning all inward) and made more remarkable a part which has been called one of the greatest roles available for a female actor.
At the Harman Center, light is also a character from the beginning with the cerulean blue sky of Greece possessing the stage, reflecting the tone of the play and its changing mood. A huge rock formation is the only stagecraft in an asymmetrical setting, telling us all we need to know of the play’s structure, power and elegance, the bleak ferocity of writer Jean Racine.
The language is now blank verse in Racine’s play, translated by the former Poet Laureate of England, Ted Hughes. He died at age 68 in a life not unlike a Racine tragedy His lover, in 1969 AssisaWevill, for whom Hughes had left his wife, poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide, using gas, as Plath had in 1963. Wevill also killed the couple's 2-year-old daughter. Ted Hughes starred in a mountain of literary controversy, destroying the dead Plath’s journals, and was hated and loved intermittently by readers and critics. I paraphrase poet Eagan Boland’s remark of Hughes saying that no poet was so praised for his failures. Phedre was the last translation by a man called the best of his generation. This was how Hughes spent his years before death in 1998, lending his vision to heroic French verse changing it into clear direct poetic prose.
The play is of Queen Phedre’s incestuous love for her stepson, Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper). Chaucer put infidelity well, calling it “the great untrouthe of love.” Phedre is dying of her grief, harboring an abhorrent sin, tortured by an inability to possess Hippolytus or show kindness to him. Theseus, King of Athens (Stanley Townsend) is away on his travels and rumored dead. Oenone, nurse and confidant to Phedre, (Margaret Tyzack) unwisely tells Phedre she must unburden her secret and cast off its sickness.
Phedre summons her strength and bares her heart to Hippolytus who is repulsed, but not nearly as replulsed as Theseus will be when he returns. The best offense is defense and Oenone counsels Phedre to accuse Hippolytus of lustful acts, shifting the alliance. Hippolytus is honorable to the end in not dispelling Phedre’s lie. “My only wealth is my pride “said Hippolytus early on “leaving me no room for folly.” Hippolytus also discloses his love for Aricia of royal Athenian blood (Ruth Negga), the daughter of an enemy, a person forbidden to him .Truth is learned too late. Theseus calls on Neptune to kill his son, which results in Phedre’s final demise.
Phedre’s desire was all-consuming and the play tells us that once Love picks the man “Gods cancel all protestations.” The Queen dies of anguish slowly from the play’s very beginning. This is theater of language, short spare phrases, Alexandrine verse now transformed into modern poetry. ”When passion breaks, reason evaporates.” Phedre’s shameful confession, “Look at me. A woman in frenzy” is beautifully cadenced. The monologues throughout could have been histrionic but because of the ability of Ted Hughes we have a more bracing script. This is his major opus; his pen was strong to the end. Hughes mastered his many voices to make this world multiply better even than Robert Lowell’s previous translation. Margaret Rawlings who played Phedre in 1957 said there was “no actable translation” available. She translated it from French and claimed to have improved on Robert Boswells work of 1890. I don’t see much improvement except an emphasis for her to better play her lines. There is something about a masterwork that makes a master writer want to imprint his own soul; put something that was not there before. Whatever he was seeking to accomplish, I believe Hughes found.
Racine and Shakespeare are spoken in the same breath. Where Shakespeare is a multi-colored and spectacular caravan, Racine is the gray of formality. It is said Racine employs 1/10th the words Shakespeare would use in a play. And let me say, for a translator/adapter, words are only as good as the ones he brings along in his heart.
A wonderful moment for the audience is when Phedre realizes that, alive or dead, Hippolytus loves Aricia and that their love will be immortal, whether they live or die. This is impossible for Phedre to bear. Helen Mirren makes magnificent the simple language: “He can feel, but he feels nothing for me.” I saw Judith Anderson play Medea years ago and I have never forgotten the fire of her speeches. Mirren plays Phedre with restrained passion, ablaze only at times, and will be honored for this just as well.
Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and poet. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress for public radio.
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. sold out.