Dominic Cooper and Helen Mirren in the National Theatre production of Jean Racine's Phèdre
Richard and I, together with our friend Joanna, did something slightly unusual this past Thursday: we went to the movies to watch theatre. And not just any theatre. We went to see Dame Helen Mirren starring as Racine’s tragic heroine, Phèdre, in the acclaimed National Theatre production of Ted Hughes’ English prose translation, directed by Nicolas Hytner, and currently receiving raves in London. Rather than us flying to London to see Mirren, she deigned to come to us. It was all courtesy of satellite technology, the National’s first experiment in using the live simulcast model pioneered by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
The Met’s idea was as simple as it was brilliant: hire an experienced camera crew to film successive Saturday afternoon matinees of its current seasonal repertoire, and beam the images live to audiences across North America, who will have gathered in their local multiplexes (here on the west coast before breakfast, which only adds to the novelty) to experience, for example, the thrill of Marcello Giordani and Susan Graham in Robert Lepage’s visually stunning production of Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust for a fraction of the cost (tickets for Phèdre were a mere $20.95 CDN), and in stereo surround sound and high definition video.
The Met broadcasts happen at the Scotiabank Movie Theatre in downtown Vancouver, the newest and most luxurious of the raked ampitheatre-style cinemas in the city. While I have yet to attend one of those events (I’m not, I admit, the biggest opera fan), when I heard that the same venue would be participating in the Phèdre broadcast, I immediately jumped at the chance to buy tickets. I had seen advertisements for the production when we were in London this past May, and regretted that the show was scheduled to open only after we left. I regretted this even more when I began hearing, via various other blogs and RSS feeds I follow, that the production was receiving uniformly excellent reviews. Having now seen the play, I concur with these assessments, albeit with one minor qualification. On the whole, I likewise enjoyed immensely the experience of watching Mirren and company battle futilely against their own desires and the even more inexorable will of the gods in glorious technicolour on a giant movie screen, although here I have some more significant quibbles.
The overall excellence of the production owes much, I think, to the success of Hughes’ translation, which adapts Racine’s notoriously difficult Alexandrine verse into a contemporary English idiom that is especially visceral in its animal imagery, particularly when describing human sexual appetite and the thrall into which those appetites often place us. Hytner and his production team have matched the contemporariness of Hughes’ prose with a simple, spare set carved out of the white limestone of the play’s Troezen setting, and modern-dress costuming in mostly Armani-like monochromes (with the notable exception of Queen Pèhdre) and modern tailoring that nevertheless succinctly alludes to more ancient themes of martial masculinity and quiescent femininity. Against this “blank” backdrop, Hytner allows his cast to give full vent to their deeply hued and intricately embroidered passions. Most of the cast is up to this task, especially Mirren, who gives a master class in tragic acting (which, even in Racine’s “updated” 17th-century neo-classical baroque style, can look impossibly antiquated and alienating to a contemporary audience raised—via movies, no less—on the North American “method”).
It is particularly transfixing to watch how Mirren’s body physically recoils from the unspeakability of the words that she is yet powerless to prevent herself from uttering to her nurse Oenone early on in the play, and that consequently set the tragic plot in motion—namely, that she is in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. Again, those who primarily know Mirren from her buttoned-down Oscar-winning movie role as Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ The Queen will have forgotten what a sensuous, embodied, and physically present actress she has always been (from the increasingly frazzled and blousy Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect series to her sexually magnetic turns in movies ranging from Michael Powell’s The Age of Consent to Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers). Here, as an older woman abandoned by her self-important and womanizing husband, Theseus (those who remember their Greek mythology will know he had similarly abandoned her sister, Ariadne), and all too aware, moreover, of the curse that hangs over her family when it comes to love (her other sister is Medea, after all), Mirren registers her character’s forbidden, incestuous desire as a series of wounds sustained upon her body. She enters the stage crippled over by the weight of her secret, and on or near the floor of the stage is where she lingers for most of the play, literally bent double by the quicksilver rush of uncontrollable emotions engulfing her. Watch, for example, how she supplicates herself abjectly at the feet of Hippolytus after confessing to him her love, and then in a flash grabs his sword and places it upon her breast when it is clear he has only contempt and disgust for her. And, near the end of the play, when she discovers that Hippolytus is secretly in love with Aricia, the princess imprisoned by his father Theseus because of her rival claim to the throne of Athens, the new emotion that suddenly overtakes her—jealously—first registers as a pain beneath her ribs, with Mirren using her fingers to crawl down the left side of her body to indicate the exact spot where she has been ensnared by the poisonous flipside of Cupid’s arrow. Mirren conveys with such gestures how vainly and futilely characters like Phèdre strain against the inevitability of the narrative as it has been written for them (by the gods, as by a Sophocles or a Racine), and it is a marvel to watch such a fine actress slowly succumb, limb by limb, vertebra by vertebra, to the destiny that will literally consume her.
As Hippolytus, Dominic Cooper (whom the three of us had all seen, albeit on different sides of the Atlantic, in the National’s excellent production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys of a few years ago) matches Mirren’s outsized passion with his controlled performance of a man who has spent a lifetime keeping his own emotions in check: his contempt for his father, who sired him through rape (ironically, the very charge that will be brought against him by Phèdre when she realizes, belatedly, that her husband is still alive); his disdain for his stepmother; and his own secret and forbidden passion for Aricia. Cooper is an intensely charismatic performer and, here, clad in army fatigues and a black wifebeater, with bulging biceps and a sexy growth of beard, it is easy to understand how both Phèdre and Aricia fall under his spell. When, falsely accused by his father, he finally lets loose with the full fury of his emotion, the effect is electrifying. And the love scenes with Aricia (a very fine Ruth Negga) are equally affecting in their tenderness. John Shrapnel and Margaret Tyzack offer strong support in the key roles of Théramène, confidante to Hippolytus, and Oenone, nurse to Phèdre. Both are properly solicitous of the confidence of their respective charges, though the counsel Oenone gives in return (she is the one who, upon false news that Theseus is dead, convinces Phèdre, to confess her love to Hippolytus, and then, when it turns out Theseus is in fact still alive, to accuse her stepson of rape) is perhaps not so wise as that of Théramène. These supporting roles also indicate something of Racine’s innovation regarding the classic Greek chorus, with Oenone and Théramène separately taking on aspects of this dramatic function, but in so doing also turning the chorus into a fallible individual conscience/unconscious (a check on Hippolytus’ ego in the case of Théramène, not enough of a check on Phèdre’s id in the case of Oenone) rather than an abstract collective consciousness with which the audience is meant to identify.
Only Stanley Townsend as Theseus truly disappoints. He is a commanding physical presence, and has a booming voice, but his performance is noticeably wooden alongside the others, and he does not seem able to invest Hughes’ prose with the same emotional depth or poetic rhythm as the other actors. The return of Theseus (absent for the first half of the play, but a powerful looming presence nonetheless) is the key moment of the play, what sends everyone hurtling towards their denouement, and unfortunately Townsend just doesn’t convince as a man equal to Hercules in heroic labours but tragically blind to his own domestic dysfunction.
It was pleasing to see such a strong turnout on a warm summer night for all of this high tragedy, though one wonders why audiences don’t seem to exist in the same numbers for live local theatre? As it turns out, the event was somewhat misadvertised. It was not actually a live simulcast (which, as it started at 7 pm local time, would have meant the London performance was taking place at 3 or 4 am), but rather involved filming a live performance to tape for subsequent rebroadcast around the world. Which makes it all the harder to explain why the people in charge at the Scotiabank felt compelled to start rolling the tape before all of us forced to queue outside the cinema entrance had found some seats. Richard and I came in just as Hippolytus and Théramène were engaged in their opening expository conversation at the top of the play. Joanna arrived just a few minutes later, and had to take a neck cramp-inducing seat near the front.
Then, too, as much as I enjoyed seeing Mirren and Cooper et al emote in extreme close-up, and as much as I admired the skill with which the director of the film crew cut between actors, I did chafe against the cinematic apparatus’ imperative of where to look. One of the pleasures of going to the theatre is, by and large, having an unobstructed view of the entire stage and the full range of action played out upon it. In the theatre, we can choose where to look; in the cinema, the camera makes that decision for us, and in this context I deeply regretted on more than one occasion not being able to see and assess various reactions of the non-speaking actors on stage.
There was also something missing in terms of atmosphere, and not just because of the strange disjunction of seeing people carrying big bags of popcorn and jumbo softdrinks to their seats. Notwithstanding the ongoing debates in performance studies regarding liveness and mediation, I admit to being a sucker for the “eventness” and sense of intimacy created by live theatre. I do think the audience feels differently (which is to say, in a way that is potentially more collective) in the theatre than in the cinema. And I think this has something to do with the difference between seeing live bodies on stage versus virtual bodies on screen. A case in point: while there were the odd scattered laughs and gasps throughout the course of the broadcast of Phèdre on Thursday night, it was telling that the one time the audience came together in a noticeable way to express a felt reaction was one that was expressly mediated by technology, that is, when the broadcast signal appeared to wobble and the screen images momentarily started to break up.
A final note to readers: the blog is going on hiatus for a few weeks, as I will be traveling (to Australia, where, before running a marathon on the Gold Coast and traveling with my sister and brother and his family to the Great Barrier Reef, I plan to catch some theatre in Sydney). I’ll be back in mid-July to report on the Dancing on the Edge Festival and much else.