Friday, 19 June 2009

Phèdre - A Review

Jean Racine is, together with Pierre Corneille and Molière, one of the three major French playwrights; all from the 17th century. Still, while I have read some of Corneille's stuff and endured the study of some of Molière's comedies at school, I have never actually explored Racine's works in any way.

Therefore going to the National Theatre to attend a performance of Phèdre, with Dame Helen Mirren in the title role, presented several levels of interest.

Before talking about the play, I would like to have a good moan about the quality of the seating in the theatre. Cozy doesn't even start to describe it. There is barely enough place to fold one's legs and certainly none to change position, which can be an issue when watching a two hour play with no intermission. The back of the seats are also too low in my view.

I am sure that actress Fiona Shaw, who had the misfortune of sitting right behind this 6'1 hindrance, would also have had something to say about the seating arrangements.

On to the play itself now.

Picture below by Catherine Ashmore: Helen Mirren (Phèdre) and Dominic Cooper (Hippolytus)

Helen Mirren (Phèdre) and Dominic Cooper (Hippolytus), photo by Catherine AshmoreThis modern version written by Ted Hughes officially opened 11 June following previews that began 4 June.

Yet it felt still quite untrained and self-conscious. I noticed two hesitations from two different actors and towards the beginning, twice we could hear things falling off-stage.

Because this is classical tragedy, the style of performance is quite grandiloquent and conceited. I found this a little difficult to get used to at the beginning but that didn't last.

Despite all this the performances were very good and will no doubt even improve as the actors settle in their parts.

The acting and general plot however are probably the only elements left of Racine's original text which was written in 1677 in 5 acts and in alexandrine verse, following the dogmatic canons of the Tragedy genre.

Although Hughes' version does a great job, it comes as one long piece of prose. And Phèdre's dying scene is over in about a minute which feels much too short for this sort of play and I won't say anything of the use of such glaringly anachronistic words as "slow motion".

There is probably a still moralistic element to the play. The spectator is, I think, invited to take responsibility for his acts and at the very least to be careful of what he/she wishes for.

Discussing the play with a friend who was there with me, I was reminded of the video of a talk I had recently seen in which author Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and expresses the idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius, and how liberating this can be. The video can be viewed below:

My friend however complained that he had not find anything he could relate to in the play. And it is indeed hard (if impossible) to care for the characters and their woes.

I am not sure however that this is the aim of such play. It is, I think, an example of art for art's sake. Something beautiful, polished and called like a Greek statue but in a way too perfect to allow for feelings.

Possibly not the way were are used to enjoy our plays these days but certainly not something impossible to achieve as my evening proved that night.

Find out more about the original on Wikipedia here.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner
National Theatre
until 27 August

1 comment:

  1. Like you, I've endured more of Corneille than Racine at school and only came to really appreciate latter much later in life (ouch, the 'later' bit is a killer...).
    Enjoyed reading your review and I'm very envious: Helen Mirren & Racine must be an amazing combination. Roll on Andromaque and Mirren, north of the border, hopefully :).


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