The passion that Phedre, queen of Athens, feels for her stepson Hippolytus has so consumed her that she can barely keep still. She's twisted into knots, prone to spasms; words pour out in edgy bursts.
But when Phedre, portrayed by Helen Mirren in the National Theatre of Great Britain production of Racine's 17th-century tragedy, finally decides to open her heart to Hippolytus, she enters the stage walking slowly backward. Suddenly, she's a girlish maiden, all demure and sweet, hesitant to face the one she loves.
It's a wonderful moment in an incisive performance that reaffirms Mirren's eminent-actress status. She's clearly the main reason that this "Phedre," presented at Sidney Harman Hall by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington through Saturday, sold out five hours after tickets went on sale months ago.
There is enormous pleasure just watching Mirren in action, the balletic play of her hands, the way she stops and turns her head to make a point, while her body seems to be straining to move forward. There is equal pleasure in savoring the richly varied colors of Mirren's voice. What a telling spin she can put on such a straightforward line as, "Prudence and restraint are out of date."
This is not your grand-pere's Racine, with its iambic elegance. The production uses an artful version by Ted Hughes that boasts its own poetic power, as when Phedre says, "I stink of incest and deceit," or imagines how "the truth would have come vomiting out of my mouth."
The Hughes text focuses tightly on the details of this tale, which Racine adapted from the Euripides drama, a plot driven by misdirected lust, misguided loyalties and misinformation.
Director Nicholas Hytner keeps things all the more taut by presenting the play in a single, two-hour sweep on Bob Crowley's stark set, superbly lighted by Paule Constable to evoke the truth-seeking heat of the sun streaming into the rocky court. Crowley's mostly modern-dress costume design provides a stylish effect.
Dominic Cooper is a moody, volatile Hippolytus, so horrified at his stepmother's advances that he rushes to a fountain to wash off the traces of her touch on his face. Stanley Townsend masterfully captures each rapidly shifting emotion of Theseus, the king who returns to find his realm turned inside out by sins he cannot fathom.
Veteran British actress Margaret Tyzack is marvelous as Phedre's well-intentioned, wrong-headed nurse, Oenone. Tyzack's final scene, moving slowly to her doom, stays long in the memory.
John Shrapnel gives a dynamic portrayal of Theramene, loyal friend to Hippolytus. Ruth Negga does affecting work as Aricia, who unknowingly becomes Phedre's rival.
In an age of proud superficiality, it's good to be reminded of the depth and lasting truths of Greek tragedy. "Phedre" contains a sizable quantity of those truths, reiterated in this penetrating production, lit from within by Mirren's consummate interpretation of the woman Theramene calls "the cause of everything."