10 January 1999: The Record

The Dark, Desperate Side Of Love

Racine's "Phedre" dissects the dark, desperate side of love, a frenzy perfectly captured in the Almeida Theater Company's production that the Brooklyn Academy of Music has wisely imported from London for a two-week run.

The revival, directed by Jonathan Kent, is memorable not only for its passion but for its ability to sustain the intensity of that feeling for a swift 100 minutes with no intermission.

The conflict in Racine's version of Greek tragedy remains sturdily apparent more than three centuries after the play was written. The French playwright had an unerring sense of human frailty, particularly the power of love to destroy as well as to create.

Any "Phedre" worth its tears and tribulations must have a formidable actress in the title role. The Almeida has found one in Diana Rigg, the company's specialist in playing distraught divas from ancient Greece. Rigg starred in the company's "Medea" in London and later on Broadway, winning a Tony Award in 1994 for her efforts.

Like Zoe Wanamaker, currently igniting the hit Broadway revival of "Electra," Rigg doesn't spare herself or the audience. In her first entrance, the actress, dressed in black and sporting a shock of red hair, literally careers into the wall of designer Maria Bjornson's chilly, mausoleum-like palace antechamber.

"I am in love," Phedre wails. There is no joy here, only anguish at finding herself attracted to her stepson, Hippolytus. She quivers with self-hatred for allowing those feelings to permeate her being.

Rigg has a commanding presence. Her voice has taken on a husky ring, a richer, more resonant tone that allows her to negotiate Racine's dialogue with ease. And she displays a natural elegance, a style that oddly enough makes her character's emotional and psychological collapse all the more poignant.

The free-verse adaptation by Ted Hughes is tough yet eloquent, capturing the grandeur of the language, yet retaining a clarity that makes the plot complications easy to follow.

As the object of Phedre's obsession, Toby Stephens postures a bit, but when called on to rise to the outrage of Phedre's lies, he credibly climbs the heights of indignation.

David Bradley, as the young man's faithful tutor, gets the evening's showiest monologue. With an icy calm that doesn't conceal the event's horror, he delivers a low-key yet graphic description of Hippolytus' death.

An avuncular Julian Glover, as Phedre's husband and unwitting dupe, displays genuine horror when he realizes he has caused his son's death. And there is credible work by the striking Joanna Roth as the beautiful young woman Hippolytus loves.

The triumph of this revival is that despite the grandiosity of the language, the production displays a real sense of being alive _ even if it is to wallow in pain, guilt, and desolation _ that manages to be felt 300 years after "Phedre" was written.

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