Timothy Ramsden looks forward to a production of Phedre that drops the usual style for the heroine
By Jean Racine translated by Ted Hughes Perth Theatre March 16-April 1, tel: 0845 612 6323, Glasgow Citizens' April 18-22, tel: 0141 429 0022, Coventry Warwick Arts Centre April 25-29, tel: 024 7652 4524.
Director Graham McLaren has forged a reputation in Scottish theatre for his productions of Greek tragedies with Theatre Babel. A move to neo-classical tragedy seems logical for someone who finds the demands classic writers set fulfilling. Racine tells of Phedre's overpowering love for her step-son Hippolytus, who seems to have no desire for women.
Believing her husband Theseus is dead, she admits her love to Hippolytus.
When Theseus returns alive, Phedre protects herself from accusation with the claim the young man raped her.
This new production will play against the dominant style of staging Racine today, a style McLaren refers to as European, with heroines like Phedre played by "gaunt ladies in their 50s, sucking on cigarettes and with mascara running down their cheeks".
His Phedre is Katherine Howden, a good decade younger and of more solid build than the "runny mascara" stereotype. He is placing the production in the 20th-century - Western Europe in the 1940s to 50s, or Eastern Europe some 30 years later: "It's too odd to see people in togas flapping about on stage."
Yet a setting is needed which provides both a context for Theseus as a warrior-king and also a strong belief system, either Catholic or Orthodox.
Racine was a Jansenist, to whom the idea of sin was as great as the sin itself (it formed a harsh religion; McLaren describes the Jansenist cross, its horizontal bar curved upwards at the ends as if limiting the possibility of salvation). For Phedre the desire to sleep with Hippolytus is as serious as the act, giving rise to her guilt and death.
Yet McLaren has no truck with the claim sometimes made that Phedre is less a great play than a great role. He points out that both Hippolytus and Theseus (though he appears only half-way through) have roughly as many lines as Phedre. And the root of tragedy, for McLaren, lies in an individual taking on something greater than themselves and being crushed by it, which applies to the two men. He compares Theseus to Sophocles'
Oedipus; both want to find out "the truth" yet when they discover this it turns out to be the one thing they do not want to hear.
Hippolytus "is a Hamlet, who believes he has to live up to his father's (heroic) reputation." His tragedy too is that the one thing he does to make things better (declaring his love for Aricia to prove he would not have wanted to rape Phedre) makes matters worse. For Phedre, hearing he can love women but not her, is made angrily jealous and the tragic journey continues.
lA different production of Phedre, translated by Frank McGuinness, will be at the Donmar Warehouse, London, April 6-June 3.
Tel: 0870 060 6624