Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: Phedre

About two weeks about I saw the rebroadcast of Phedre, the National Theatre production that was live simulcast in their new program of National Theatre Live! This was a 2009 production, but via technology we can all enjoy the performance by Helen Mirren--and others. Actually, I just came for Mirren: proof once again that she is a great actress, not just a movie star with style but a great freaking actress on stage, too.

I do want to address the program of National Theatre Live. It is a great idea, and not solely because it brings productions that I couldn't see without travelling to London regularly (which would not be a hardship in any way but financially). It is a really brave idea, because they are simulcasting some wacky stuff to theatres all over the world--throughout Britain, Europe, and the U.S.--not just "regular" theatre offerings but things by Complicite and the soon-to-come Hamlet. In other words, REAL plays and REAL theatre.

The production of Phedre is in their medium-sized theatre, the Lyttleton, and the filming is in HD--gorgeously done. My caveat is this: it is a live theatre performance filmed and edited as film as much as theatre... and therin lies the trap for actors as well as us, the audience. Some of the actors are obviously much more comfortable with the small-size event of film, while others are not. Mirren floats seamlessly between, or beyond, never even noting the cameras, or even the reality of the 21st century.

What I mean is, this is not a one-camera-focused-on-the-stage event. It is not that simple nor that naive. It is, in its own way, a documentary film of a theatre production of Phedre, without the interviews or accompanying junk of most such films surrounding it. The camera(s) move. There is editing. There are close-ups as well as full-screen views of the full stage.

By giving us this (transparent) interference with a "live" broadcast in a movie theatre, the "filmed" element seems to go away.

But it is there, influencing our viewing of this piece.

Now: let me say that this was what I consider to be "theatre" at its best. Not cinematic theatre, not a mutated version of TV, not a watery "relatable experience." But balls to the wall theatre--Racine's amazing, take no prisoners 17th-century drama.

Again caveat. The National did not do it in rhyming couplets, which is okay. It is hard for 21st century audiences to hear rhymed couplets in tragedy... and not go all Hallmark. It is also... slow... for us 21st century folks. But, like watching Shakespeare (real Shakespeare, not watery "relatable" Shakespeare), once you give yourself to it, settle in, and accept you are in the flow of Racine's great dramaturgy... you are golden.

Mirren was great. Of course, she looked great, in a series of wonderfully designed costumes meant to evoke both ancient Greece, 17th century France, tragedy as a great art, and modern sensibilities (how?): she was a queen in the throes of a desperate sexual passion for her stepson. Racine gives us a Phedre who knows this "curse" has been set upon her by Venus as a punishment, and we meet a woman who would rather die than give in to this illicit, adulterous love--even by a look or a word.

Built in to the best of 17th century heroes and heroines is the moral dilemma of personal emotion vs. society's ethics (including Judeo-Christian precepts like fidelity and chastity). They struggle with these conflicts, and rathher than give in to them quickly and deal with the consequences (like 21st century drama), much of the play is about Phedre refusing to give in to this overwhelming desire/love. When the situation changes--we all think Theseus, her husband and Hippolytus's father--is dead--she can now let go and allow herself to feel, to express her feelings, to open her heart and pour out her HUGE passion like the tsunami that it is.


The point, in 17th century drama, is the tension of not being caught between the self and society in a moral dilemma. The tension between one's two-year-old passions and the demands of the community for respect and concern for the rights of other's equal to or before one's own... is, for Racine, huge. Moliere's comic version of this--where people do give in--is equally devastating, but on the domestic scale.

No one is quite as good as Mirren in this version, although her confidente is played by Margaret Tyzack, who has the thankless role of doublecrossing everyone... she is the bad guy in Racine's version, and here plays it with the assurance of a seasoned actress. The scenes between Mirren and Tyzack are wonderful to watch.

Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus is overwhelmed by Mirren's skills; he is a nice boy, good-looking, although the notion to put him in a Don Johnson stubble and somehat grubby A-shirt seem like the choices of a music video rather than a serious theatrical costume. His pretty looks are saved by the small screen editing (close-ups) that mask the fact that he doesn't know what to do with his body: no tension, no fear, no hidden secrets or subtext. He seems to be inspired more by Brando's Stanley Kowalski than anything, and I waited for him to fall to his knees and bellow, "Aricia!!!!!! Aricia baby!!!!!!!" for his Big Moment. he wanders aimlessly on the stage, and the more experienced actors kindly cover for his youth and lack of awareness of the deep emotions running through Hippolytus: love, hatred, despair, disgust, anger. For the life of me, Racine's explanation seems apt: Venus must have cursed Phedre, otherwise why would such a woman have such a monumental crush on such a shallow boy... but ah, haven't we all been there?

Stanley Townsend as Theseus seemed like Santa Claus trying to play Big Daddy. Yoink! He yelled and strutted and gestured and bellowed and pointed his beard and big tummy around the stage like weapons... but I did not believe him as a formidable man in his middle-aged prime who was a serious force in this tragedy. Or even a very good king. We are to believe that Theseus has been the sexual bad boy of the Aegean, playing hide the salami with every woman he meets, making them swoon with his charisma... and this is one reason his son hates him and has become such a chaste boy. For me, couldn't be. Townsend might hire lapdancers or courtesans, but no way was he ever the Errol Flynn of the Greek city-states and beyond... if you get my meaning.

The set: fantastic. The costumes, as said: fantastic. The actresses in general: excellent! The younger women who played Aricia and her confident were strong, although Aricia was the weakest of the bunch. Pretty, sad, etc., the actress found strength in the character, but there was little spark.

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