Whatever the English are feeding their actresses these days, the results are nourishing our theaters with carnivorous, scary, thrilling new-style classic tragediennes.
Zoe Wanamaker's revenge-crazed Electra is making Sophocles an unlikely hero of the Broadway season. Now Diana Rigg, whose Medea won her a Tony Award in 1994, has hurtled voraciously into BAM's Majestic Theater with a savage late-Romantic feast on Jean Racine's 17th-Century "Phedre." The relentless 100-minute production, like the "Medea" and the Ralph Fiennes "Hamlet," has been staged by Jonathen Kent, whose Almeida Theatre Company also will be thanked when it brings "The Iceman Cometh" with Kevin Spacey to Broadway this spring. Unlike "Medea" and "Hamlet," which - to prolong the food metaphor - were more basic meat-and-potatoes inventions, this "Phedre" is a stunner.
New York does not see much of Racine, the French neoclassicist whose formal, static verse-plays dominated the Parisian court after Shakespeare's overtook the British. Some theatergoers may protest that Ted Hughes' new free-verse adaptation of "Phedre" - presented in repertory through next week with the same actors in Racine's lesser-known "Britannicus" - leaves us deprived of the structure from Racine's rhymed alexandrine couplets.
But Hughes, the late poet most infamously known as the husband of Sylvia Plath, infused his last project with extraordinary poetic yet vernacular beauty. And Kent's entire cast, not just the smoky, luminous Rigg, takes hold of the ancient-inspired catastrophe with the ferocity both of mortal psychological complexity and high-deity drama.
Rigg - no longer pop culture's most elegant '60s leather-babe from "The Avengers" - is the stepmom from hell, a woman consumed with her humiliating obsession with Hippolytus (Toby Stephens), son of her husband, Theseus (Julian Glover). In the beginning, before her husband's reported death makes the forbidden union possible, Rigg's Phedre is stooped in suicidal shame, her burnt-red bob hanging almost to her chest as she confesses to Oenone (Barbara Jefford), her aging confidante-maid. By the time Phedre has thrown herself onto her horrified stepson's boot, her rage and guilt have transformed into a kind of self-immolating, hopeful degradation. Later, as she spits out the words, "I stink of incest and deceit," she is - as Kenneth Tynan once said of another Phedre - terrific, in the literal meaning of the word.
The gods appear both real and ambiguous in Racine, who based his characters on Euripides and Seneca but maintained a modern ambivalence about mortals as victims of destiny and victims of their own desires. As in all Racine, the action takes place in a single antechamber, this one made both plain and plushy by Maria Bjornson, the gifted designer of "The Phantom of the Opera." A large sculpture of Venus seems actually to be pushing off one peacock-blue wall, while Cupid toys with Venus on a back mural and the roar of Neptune's waves is heard beyond the opposing wall of windows. Jonathan Dove's music, which punctuates the blackouts between the five brief acts, has the late-romantic sound of trumpets pushing against conventional tonality. Bjornson has dressed most of the men in black leathers, most of the women in form-fitting black velvets. Phedre wears a ruby ring that screams privilege, even as she hugs the walls.
Everyone hugs and crawls the walls, but no one does it with the endearing lack of self-consciousness of Stephens' Hippolytus. The actor - the son of Maggie Smith - is dressed to look a bit like Wagner's Siegfried and has the beside-himself sweetness of a young man in first vapors. His love, alas, is not Phedre, but his father's enemy, Aricia, played by Joanna Roth with an admirably royal knowledge of how to wear a stole.
Each main character is accompanied by a wise and / or manipulative servant, and Kent has cleverly cast each as if casting a protagonist. In addition to Jefford's eloquently doomed Oenone, there are Avril Elgar's more than supportive Ismene and, especially, David Bradley's Theramene. This is Hippolytus' manservant, the lifelong helpmate who must, ultimately, tell a father the gruesome details of how his mistaken curse was carried out on his beloved son.
Stephens plays Nero to Rigg's Agrippina in "Britannicus," a political thriller that opens Friday. In April, London's brilliant Declan Donnellan will bring his production of Pierre Corneille's "Le Cid" to BAM for another precious few performances. Corneille was overshadowed by Racine in the new Comedie Francaise in their own time, but Corneille is the trendy one today. With this "Phedre," the bar has been raised in Brooklyn now.