Catherine McClements and Julie Forsyth in Phèdre | Malthouse Theatre (Pic: Rush)

Lighter moments amid a Greek tragedy of jealously, screaming frustration and illicit love all played out brilliantly at the Malthouse Theatre on a cold autumn night in Melbourne. How much better can it get?

Bell Shakespeare’s production of Jean Racine’s 17th century classic stars Catherine McClements in a tour-de-force. bringing to the title role a stalking multi-dimensional animalism, full of pathos, nuance and self-reflective humour. If she doesn’t win awards for this amazing performance there is no justice.

At first I was sceptical, fearing the heavy-handed direction of the first act, with its static cast and gunshot-loud soundscapes (my ears are still ringing), would last all night. Director Peter Evans thankfully eased off the pedal just enough for the play to take flight. But how could it not with poet Ted Hughes masterly translation, a version that seems to owe as much to Shakespeare’s Hamlet as it does to Racine?

The plot: Phedre, descended from the Gods, bears a curse of twisted love that spites all the women in her family; her husband, King Theseus, has disappeared and her affliction is an all-consuming passion for her stepson Hippolytus. It’s a dangerous and lurid obsession made more potent by the whiff of taboo. To the world, Phedre shows nothing but contempt for her noble, naïve and somewhat frigid stepson who is also carrying his own secret: a love for the daughter of the former king banished by Theseus to a life of perpetual chastity, the beautiful Aricia.

Like all the characters in the play, Phedre is a victim whose fate is in the hands of childish and often vengeful gods, but her situation is made even more desperate by the machinations of her well-meaning busybody sidekick Oenone (the wonderful Julie Forsyth) and when Theseus returns unexpectedly literally from Hell, all hell really does break loose. The pompous Theseus, played by Marco Chiappi, with just the right amount of cellophane-thin charisma, is the perfect tool of the gods, believing without question the whisperings of Oenone and invoking the power of Neptune to curse his son, so precipitating the climax of the play. Edmund Lembke-Hogan’s Hippolytus is an excellent contrast to McClements’ Phedre, his chaste disgust of her as palpable as his professed love for Aricia.

All the cast were strong in a tight ensemble piece that never lost its passion. Theramene’s (Bert LaBonte) soliloquy on the fate of Hippolytus at the end deserves special mention for its beautiful language and vivid description, undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire evening.

There were so many highlights: Abby Earl as Aricia ploughs the depths of a character obsessed by grief for what she has been denied, and Olivia Moniticciolo’s Ismene gives a wonderful account of the Queen’s madness, in a beautiful speech so reminiscent of Gertrude’s lament on the death of Ophelia in Hamlet, I had to pinch myself to remind me where I was.

The star of the night was undoubtedly McClements, who was most astonishing in the scene just after Phedre realises Theseus is alive and, in a gangly heap on the floor, talks to herself and her celestial abuser:

“You great God Venus are you watching? Are you happy to see how far I have fallen? Your victory is complete, Goddess of remorseless cruelty.”

Incredibly, McClements is able to bring to her performance the gaunt absurdity of Phedre’s situation, and within her madness she also makes us laugh, illuminating the darker depths of all the characters plights.

Interestingly the second half couldn’t reach the dizzying heights anticipated at interval, a fault probably of the original play than of the opening night production. Phedre is said to have a place in French culture akin to where Shakespeare’s Hamlet sits in ours and no one could fault the wonderful text by Ted Hughes so fluent and emotionally rich with a muscular lyricism it hardly seems a translation at all. Some of my favourite lines of the night, all from the mouth of Phedre:

“My life is so bloated by my crimes it makes my hair stand on end … I stink of incest …

“My own craving fills me with horror, I detest my life …

“See a woman in frenzy, I am in love …

“Those gods who amuse themselves play sadistic games with the human heart.”

Anna Cordingley’s sparse monochrome set, with cracked ceiling open to heaven and the view of vengeful gods, rams home the facts of fate and of lives controlled by beings beyond and is fitting as Racine was writing when France was ruled by Louis Quatorze, the “Sun-King” with god-like powers, who could peer into the lives of his subjects and meddle at will.

My final image as I left the theatre tonight was of McClement’s Phedre dragging her unrequited lust behind her like some great chain. Bravo for a wonderful performance.

The details: Phèdre plays Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre until June 2. The show moves to the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House for a season June 6-29 — tickets on the company website.