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Helen Mirren in 'Phèdre': What did the critics think?

June 12, 2009 | 12:45 pm


Helen Mirren -- Academy Award-winning actress, dame of the British empire and, more recently, Internet bikini sensation -- returned to her acting roots this week when she opened in the National Theatre's new production of Racine's "Phèdre" in London.

It's been nearly five years since Mirren has acted on the stage, and all eyes in the U.K. (and some in the U.S.) have been assiduously following this high-profile production, which is directed by Nicholas Hytner and also stars Dominic Cooper ("The History Boys," "Mamma Mia!"). Racine's tragedy, first performed in 1677, takes place in ancient Greece and tells the story of Queen Phèdre (Mirren) who, in the absence of her husband, Theseus, falls passionately in love with her strapping stepson, Hippolytus (Cooper).

This new production, which uses a translation by the poet Ted Hughes, is a modern-dress interpretation with minimal but highly evocative sets by Bob Crowley. Mirren, 63, doesn't wear a swimsuit, but she does don a series of form-flattering gowns and a flowing blond wig.

For those of us on the opposite side of the Atlantic, "Phèdre" is coming to the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., for a limited run in September. Fans can also catch the production in movie theaters thanks to a new project called NT Live, which will broadcast the performance to cinemas around the world on June 25. (In Los Angeles, you can see it at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.)

But before you buy your tickets, check out what the divided British critics had to say about Mirren's latest royal turn...

Benedict Nightingale of the Times of London gave a glowing review of Mirren's performance: "the years before the cameras haven’t dimmed her power to fill a large stage or rivet a first-night audience. When she grabbed at her own stomach, held it as if it were hiding something menacing and painful, and breathlessly sobbed that Venus had 'fastened on me like a tiger', you knew that she was Phèdre as Racine meant Phèdre to be."

The Daily Mail's Quentin Letts echoed the praise in his review, calling her performance "a class act from a classy actress." He described her voice as "strong and malleable, in one scene mewing at Phèdre's stepson Hippolytus, the next almost guttural as she blames her old maid Oenone for giving her bad advice. She dances round the stage with bare feet, pitter-patter with the desperate skittishness of the ageing woman on her last affair."

Not everyone was so pleased, however. Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph wrote: "Rather to my surprise, the great Helen Mirren played Phèdre last night, and lost, though by a pretty narrow margin." He added that "there is something stagy about Mirren's hand gestures, insufficient strength and variety in her voice. In the earlier scenes this consummate professional even occasionally stumbled over her lines. What's fatally lacking is a sense of tragic abandonment, the feeling that a great actress is laying everything she has before us, mind, heart, soul and guts."

Even more unimpressed -- with both Mirren and the production overall -- was Michael Coveney in the Independent: "Phèdre is supposed to be consumed by her own sunshine. Instead, Mirren opts for decorous restraint, as if suggesting that passion is best implied not spoken. That's simply not what happens in Racine, and it's so disastrous a misunderstanding that you begin to wonder if Hytner is still fully in control of his faculties, let alone the National Theatre."

The Evening Standard's Henry Hitchings was much kinder in his assessment: "Every time [Mirren] steps on to Bob Crowley’s austere set of battered stone — which looks disarmingly as though it’s made of Stilton — one’s pulse sprints." He added that "Mirren evokes Phèdre’s conflicted identity with skittish command. She is a heroic lover, yet also viciously self-lacerating, capable of being rhapsodic, delicate, hysterically imploring, tyrannically possessive, haunted and ultimately quavery and spectral."

Michael Billington in the Guardian summed up his impression: "Mirren, in short, gives us a real woman poleaxed by passion; and, even if she doesn't supplant the memory of past performances by Glenda Jackson and Diana Rigg, she more than matches them."

-- David Ng

Photo: Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Racine's "Phèdre" in London. Credit: National Theatre