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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.