Yegods, time flies. It’s 14 years since Helen Mirren trod the boards of the Lyttelton in a lauded Nicholas Hytner staging of Racine’s Phèdre. That was imposingly stately, replete with agonised creeping and trembling gestures, conventionally honouring the tale of a queen who suffers fateful unrequited longing for her handsome step-son Hippolytus.
Now in the same theatre, the Swiss-born, Australian-raised, London-based director Simon Stone – who transfixed us during the pandemic with the chastely smouldering Netflix hit The Dig – draws from Racine’s example, and that of Euripides and Seneca, for his (Covid-delayed) Phaedra. Not, however, to overload the evening with classical baggage, but to assert his right to re-wire the tale and plug it into the 21st century.
References to Icarus, the Acheron and so on are banished. Instead, the fatally attracted woman of a certain age has been renamed simply Helen – with Janet McTeer taking on the Cupid-struck lead. She’s a shadow secretary of state, living in enviable style in Holland Park and everyday familial discord. No high-flown utterances are heard: the opening scene is a conversational bun-fight, all joshing wit and jugular needling, as we’re introduced to her brood – her belittled Iranian-born diplomat husband, resentful married daughter, and sardonic teenage son.
The sundry locations are housed in a rotating glass structure, a reprise of the scenic approach taken with his acclaimed 2016 Yerma, starring Billie Piper, and de rigueur these days as a statement of exposed modernity. The fact that laughter is heard in quantities that wouldn’t disgrace a hit sitcom (especially in a deranged restaurant showdown) is one intriguing upset to tragic templates. Stone grasps that woe can erupt in risibly petty-minded, politically smug, privileged milieux, testing sympathies.
Barely less innovative is that the sexual thunderbolt comes in the form of a dishy Moroccan immigrant called Sofiane (Call My Agent’s Assaad Bouab, flashing beguiling smiles). He’s the son – and spit of – a dissident musician Helen bedded when she was a roving young woman. Sofiane’s pater died in a car-crash at that time, when he was a boy – and his arrival ushers in instant psycho-sexual tension, stirring a midlife-crisis of desire in Helen, matched by confused, vengeful passion on his part.
An elegant McTeer is superb at the micro-indications of a head turned in hormonal directions – stealing glances, flirtily laughing and restlessly rubbing her thighs. The bloody climax, when it comes, in a sea of mist and abandonment, atop slopes in Morocco, is unforgettably staged. But the actress – so heart-stopping as Nora in A Doll’s House a generation ago – is contending with a characterisation that perilously accentuates the heroine’s unlovely self-absorption.
Her fury at her daughter (a commandingly assured stage debut from Canadian screen star Mackenzie Davis) for stealing Sofiane’s affection rings true, as soapish melodrama can do, but it also edges into naked nastiness. Her proprietorial straddling of her mattress-prone paramour conveys gratification but also a repellent exotic “othering”, and isn’t she too successful a politician to be quite so unwary about the obvious ramifications of her cavalier antics?
Maybe there’s something amiss when your heart most goes out to Paul Chahidi as her self-effacing, vicar-ishly decent husband. But perhaps that’s the provocation Stone is after – daring us to see Helen as author of her own misfortune, a victim too but also getting her rich comeuppance. Whatever your verdict, the visionary elan of the night is not in question.
Until April 8. Tickets: 020 3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk