Racine: Phèdre (UK National Theatre)

I drove to Charlottesville today to see an HD broadcast of Racine’s Phèdre by the UK National Theatre, with Helen Mirren in the title role. Some desultory thoughts:

  1. At 56, I was probably younger than the median audience member. I hope they are being replaced by the newly old as they die off.
  2. The set was all scabby white concrete walls and floors on a more-than-human scale, like a modern art museum without any art on the walls, the kind where the art wouldn’t be missed. The vaguely archaic water fountain was an odd touch. On the right was a low wall with a bright blue sky behind it, which very effectively suggested a seawall with the shore just behind it.
  3. The Paramount Theater is well worth seeing in itself, and I’m going back in a week for a live performance of The Marriage of Figaro by Ashlawn Opera.
  4. When I saw Tartuffe in Charlottesville a couple of months ago, I was surprised by how simple the plot was, compared to Shakespeare’s comedies. With Phèdre, I was surprised how complicated the plot was, but that’s because I was semi-unconsciously comparing it to Euripides and Seneca, not Shakespeare. (It’s been 35 years since I read any Molière or Racine, and I’d never seen either on stage.)
  5. The translation, by Ted Hughes, worked tolerably well. It was advertised as ‘free verse’, but might as well have been prose, for all I could tell. It was mostly successful at avoiding stiff archaisms and disconcerting modernisms, though “futile placebo” sounded odd for a classical hero or a neoclassical playwright. The best line came from the nurse, Oenone: “this longing for death is going to kill us both”. How much of that is Racine, and how much Hughes, I do not know.
  6. The sound effects were irritating: mostly dull roars (to respresent the adjacent sea?) and indistinct wooshes. There were two glitches in the transmission, where the picture froze and the sound went off or changed to static, but neither lasted more than 4-5 seconds.
  7. I wondered whether people would clap at the end. It’s a natural response to a successful production, but the actors couldn’t hear us, and we knew it, which made it unnatural after all. As it turned out, there was plenty of clapping broadcast from London, so the brief flurry of scattered local claps quickly died down. The actors couldn’t see us, either, so most of us headed for the doors as soon as the show ended, not sticking around to watch the actors take their bows, assuming that was also broadcast.
  8. As for the acting, what can I say? Very professionally done, probably as well-done as a prosy translation of a verse play in a foreign language can be done. I’d like to see a French production some day, though I’d need subtitles. I will certainly go see the National Theatre’s next simulcast, All’s Well That End’s Well in October. I’m curious to see how it will compare to the American Shakespeare Center’s touring production, which will be previewing in town the first week of September.
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One Response to Racine: Phèdre (UK National Theatre)

  1. Max Bini says:

    I saw the London NT production of Ph├Ędre telecast in Melbourne Australia and thought you may be interested in some parallel observations.
    1. At 45 I was probably the youngest person in the cinema.
    2. Loved the set, especially the strangely textured boulder in the centre of the stage and the precarious sense that the ceiling was pressing down on the scene. The stark whites and blues was very apt for Greece.
    3. N/A
    4 & 5. I too kept thinking of Seneca and Euripides and was amazed at how much more seemed to be going on and how fast-paced and relevant the dialogue was. Will now need to go and read Racine’s version after having assumed it would just be a translation of Seneca.
    6. No glitches that I noticed in transmission and I tried to ignore the sound effects and focus upon the dialogue. My main criticism would be of the male military attire which looked reminiscent of WW1 – in stark contrast to the swords on hips.
    7. Ditto on the clapping – I had that awkward feeling that I should clap and that it was deserved but at the same time pointless so did not.
    8. The acting was good, I was particularly impressed with Dominic Cooper’s Hippolytus and less impressed by the actor who played Theseus.

    The last point I will make is how disconcerting it can be to have actors dropping in and out of their dialects (some Scottish and Irish twangs) and hearing different mispronounciations of the characters names.

    All in all a very good play and adaptation for the filming of theatre.

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