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A family affair...

PUBLISHED: 11:51 25 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:52 25 August 2010

Helen Mirren as Phedre, National Theatre 2009

Helen Mirren as Phedre, National Theatre 2009

It may have been billed as Helen Mirren s ultimate theatre performance but it is the whole cast of Phèdre who sizzle in this stellar production, writes Marina Soteriou.

It may have been billed as Helen Mirren's ultimate theatre performance but it is the whole cast of Phèdre who sizzle in this stellar production, writes Marina Soteriou.

Unlike the National Theatre's last big tragedy, Oedipus, Phèdre has a soul and depth beyond the stunning stage sets.

In Ted Hughes' adaptation of Jean Racine's play, the pathetic titular role is the protagonist whose cowardly actions lead to her family's destruction.

But despite this, the audience is with Mirren's Phèdre all the way.

And this has more than something to do with the actress' sumptuous performance.

She enters the sun-drenched stage hunched, sick and defeated.

Her demeanour is juxtaposed with her stunning and beautiful costume.

Her rich purple dress nods to the privileged existence as the queen to the heroic Theseus.

She may be the daughter of a king and now married to one, but her family's erotic disasters are now her legacy.

Her years of callous behaviour towards her virtuous step-son Hippolytus have another motive.

The fear she has lived with all her life is soon becoming a reality.

Holding the assumption that her husband is dead she reveals all to Hippolytus played by The History Boys' Dominic Cooper.

Phèdre's nurse, played by the brilliant Margaret Tyzack, loves her like her own daughter.

She tells her to fight on when she has given up and in a moment of paranoia she tells her to protect herself rather than the person she has fallen in love with.

Hughes' adaptation has been noted for his Northern overtones in short clipped sentences and this was personified when the mighty Stanley Townsend enters the stage as Theseus.

His massive presence is both physical and beautiful when his poetic words end with a strong Northern tilt.

His past good fortunes with the gods prove to be his downfall this time when he finally uses the favour Neptune granted him a long time ago.

We see nothing of Hippolytus' tragic demise and may have little sympathy for the pious son, but when John Shrapnel's Theramene recounts his end the audience feels every affliction inflicted upon him.

The tragedy continues at the National Theatre until August 27 before going on tour.

For tickets, call 020 7452 3000 or visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

marina.soteriou@archant.co.uk

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