First live opera on the silver screen, now classic drama. On Thursday at 7 p.m. local time, the National Theatre on London's South Bank leapt into the fray with Racine's Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren as the queen undone by repressed desire for her stepson. In the United States, the Cape Cinema in Dennis, Massachusetts, carried the show in real time as a matinee, with an encore in the evening. Viewers in Manhattan got their first look at 7:30 p.m. Screenings continue in nearly 20 countries, from Iceland to New Zealand. No subtitles, a company spokesman told me, "so the broadcasts are mainly to countries with significant English-speaking populations," which include Finland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, and Malta.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore
On the sidewalk afterwards, a theater director and filmmaker of my acquaintance was not enthusiastic. It might have worked in the theater, this person thought, but the cameras came in too close, and the visuals—video rather than film—made the actors look ugly. There were further complaints about the delivery: too grand, too much shouting. And the coup de grace: the queen was just too wrinkled, too old.
Oh my! And I had loved every minute.
Without a note of music, this was opera at its grandest. Racine's verse, as every student of the French classics has been taught, packs soul-shattering contradictions into the tightest of forms. There are no double plots in Racine, no branching patterns of metaphor. His method in all particulars is the opposite of Shakespeare's. The vocabulary, by choice, is minimal: every character speaks the same language, elevated and formulaic. A single verse form prevails: the exquisitely poised alexandrin, deployed in rhyming pairs, twelve syllables per line.
Translators call Racine untranslatable, with good reason. Yet the Ted Hughes version performed here gives his players' clash of passion and conscience a high, stirring music of its own. Mirren shaped each set piece (the formal term is tirade) like the movement of a symphony: sustaining great arcs of shame or guilt or rage or remorse, yet passing from mood to mood with the speed of thought, now blazing like a beacon, now flaring and fading and flaring again like jagged torchlight in a tempest. Not incidentally, she prowled the stage barefoot, her snow leopard's movement, her gestures, and the play of her features of a piece with the smoky melodies of the voice.
For all her extravagance, Phèdre is not alone. Her stepson Hippolytus—born of the liaison of the eternal womanizer Theseus and an Amazon—is in the stranglehold of forbidden love for the captive enemy princess Aricia. But exactly like Phèdre (daughter of the judge of the dead, granddaughter of the Sun), Hippolytus has his implacable superego to contend with. Theseus, Hippolytus says, has slain monsters, which offsets his peccadilloes. All Hippolytus has had to boast of is a Puritan's cold heart—the same heart that is now on fire. From the first line of the play, Dominic Cooper (late of The History Boys and the film of Mamma Mia!) captured the prince's bitter restlessness and self-reproach, adding touches of light, shadow, and pathos as his undeserved fate unfolds. His wide, dark eyes narrowed at Phèdre's veiled confession, and his gaze turned to steel: her irresistible force had met the immoveable object. And while no one may have planned it this way, the very geometry of Mirren's and Cooper's faces—the angles, the planes, the insolent cut of those chins and noses—honed their conflict to razor sharpness. On that score, the five cameras worked wonders.
Confidants can be players in Racine. Take Phèdre's nurse, the stupendous Oenone: loyal to a fault, the ultimate opportunist, indifferent to right and wrong. (Phèdre's redemption begins when she casts her away.) Margaret Tyzack spiked the enabler's balm with a gorgon's venom, bullying Phèdre first with her solicitude, then more brutally with her wicked counsel. Théramène, tutor to Hippolytus, is Oenone's benign opposite: pragmatic yet upright, and thus less fascinating. But in the last act he, too, gets his chance—and John Shrapnel seized it—narrating the youth's death in fearless combat with a sea monster. As Aricia, Ruth Negga belied her fragile appearance with her heroic spirit. The disappointment was Theseus, who enters only at the end of the third of five acts. (His protracted absence and supposed death precipitate the action.) The part has many notes; Stanley Townsend hammered relentlessly on the fury.
Remember, this was not a movie. Designed by Bob Crowley, the terrace where the tragedy unfolded sits between a boxy fortress and the scorching Aegean sky, dressed up only by a chair or two and swirl of rock like the trunk of a petrified tree. Depending on which camera was live, the background switched abruptly from pitted stone to cloudless blue. Jarring? Not to me, though jolting at times. Phèdre's robes, mostly in the tragedienne's royal purple, were in a neoclassic Grecian style. Aricia wore a white sundress, simplicity itself; the men contemporary casual or military wear. In the brief blackouts between acts (there was no intermission), Adam Cork's soundscape evoked the surge of the sea just beyond the parapet and with it the presence of the god Poseidon, whose hand is felt in the dénouement.
Rudimentary production values, by cinematic standards anyway, yet to me in no sense lacking. Even so, I would not pass up a chance to see this Phèdre a second time, breathing the same air as the actors. There will be such chances: at the Athens and Epidaurus Festival at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus on July 10 and 11 (www.greekfestival.gr) and at the Shakespeare Theatre Company / Harman Center for the Arts, Washington D.C., September 17-26, where remaining tickets are available only with season subscriptions (www.shakespearetheatre.org).
From June 25 (for dates, visit http:// http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/45462/home/nt-live-homepage.html)