PHÈDRE by Jean Racine, directed by Daniel Brooks, with Nancy Palk, Jonathan Watton, Diego Matamoros, William Webster, Patricia Fagan, Kate Hennig, Tanja Jacobs and Yanna McIntosh. Presented by Soulpepper at the du Maurier Theatre Centre (231 Queens Quay West). Previews tonight (Thursday, July 17), opens Friday (July 18) and runs in rep to August 16. $32-$46, stu $25, previews $28. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
As the song says, love hurts. but the pain's rarely as destructive as in the tale of Phaedra, whose initially unspoken love for her chaste stepson Hippolytus is the fuse for a royal family's tragedy. Euripides first presented the tale in dramatic form. Phaedra tells Hippolytus of her love, is rejected and then tells her husband Theseus, the young man's hero father, that Hippolytus had come on to her.
In the 18th century, French playwright Jean Racine picked up the story and gave it a more human twist - Hippolytus is now in love with a young princess and sparks jealousy as well as hurt in his stepmother, Phèdre.
It's this French version that Soulpepper stages, directed by Daniel Brooks with the mesmerizing Nancy Palk in the title role.
But it took a while before the company settled on which version to do, simply because they had to find the right translation.
"A translation is essentially a new play," explains company associate artistic director Diego Matamoros, who plays Theseus.
"When I read poet Ted Hughes's version, I was struck by its power, by the bold, specific choices that Hughes had made in translating Racine's formal verse structure."
Actors, Matamoros notes, must play thought and action, not a word-for-word academic translation.
"English is a less romantic language than French," he notes, "and Hughes's translation captures the spirit of the original but gives it more guts and a monosyllabic, percussive feel. The result is a visceral, stark simplicity."
Matamoros knows plays. He's done nine with Soulpepper, in the process snatching a pair of Doras for performances in Platonov and Endgame. In any production, he brings intellectual clarity to the text and emotional vividness to his characters.
Theseus offers him a change after his portrayal of the title character in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya last year.
"Vanya is a man of inaction, someone who increases his problems because he thinks too much. Theseus is just the opposite, a man who acts too quickly, before he thinks.
"It's nice to change gears and have to be a man of action," the actor laughs. "Theseus is the gullible guy, a kind of classical action hero who can't deal with psychological subtleties. What makes him a reputable fighter and hero is his biggest downfall."
After Phèdre Matamoros goes on to a revival of Molnár's comedy The Play's The Thing, in which he portrays a finagling theatre producer, "solidly middle-class and enjoying a comfortable life of canapés and champagne."
The actor is appreciative of the rep system that Soulpepper has been fostering for six years.
"Soulpepper isn't defined by one type of theatre. We don't become artistically stuck, because we keep changing and risking. It's scary, but it's also fun.
"And I can enjoy a range of roles in one season, showing that I can play both guitar and drums in the band."