While browsing one of those wretched lists of “what to book for this autumn” in The Times I realised that Helen Mirren would star in Racine’s Phèdre. That titillated me so much that instantly booked a couple of tickets for the best seats I could get on a Sunday matinee. In my mind’s eye she would make an interesting figure in an 18th century French tragedy.
The months passed and finally the day arrived (23 August 2009). I spend the previous evening reading through all the reviews. Especially the reception they got in Greece, when performing at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus a few weeks previously! Lots of the Greek press where star-struck by Dame Helen, while the usual moaning minority thought it was a minor event not deserving the coverage it got. A couple of excerpts on You Tube show a really loud standing ovation with very little evidence of anyone being displeased by the show! They also adapted the minimalist set to the ancient stage, making it fit to the much shallower stage than the Lyttelton’s, what more can one ask!
Now back to the Sunday at the National Theatre. Being on the sixth row was absolutely brilliant and the Lyttleton when sold out has a very intimate feel. When the heavy two-part safety curtain opened to an otherworldly ramble we were almost blinded by the bright partially sand covered set. It was indeed like being on a Mediterranean island with the sun shinning. The wait for Phèdre’s arrival on stage was palpable. When she walked in a gorgeous matching deep purple dress and translucent veil we were breathless. It was wonderful how she removed her veil to show her brilliant gold locks and the gleaming gold jewellery that she started removing and throwing it on the floor.
The Spartan appearance of the set created a very harmonious backdrop for the action. It also agreed with Ted Hughes’ fast-moving free verse translation from the French! It gave this historic, heavy tragedy of the age of enlightenment a totally contemporary pace.
The scene where Phèdre describes her feelings of love for Hippolitus to her attendant (Oenone), is a most wonderful evocation of savage emotion expressed in poetic but colloquial English. Mirren grasped her stomach with a mix of disgust and uncontrollable passion she sobbed that Venus had ‘fastened on me like a tiger’. It was one of those great moments when nothing equals a live performance. That magical space that film can never touch. Everyone in the auditorium had forgotten about Mirren and followed the story of Phèdre and her unrequited love for her step son. From the moment she fell on the floor in mourning for (the presumed dead) King Theseus, Mirren owned the stage with a beautiful intensity that played on the ambivalence of the character she portrayed. She was a devoted wife but with feelings for her dead husband’s son, a Queen that was not living up to the expectations of her people and going against her own son blinded by her passion for Hippolitus.
Racine took a slightly different direction than the ancient Greek writers and added a love interest for the step son, alleviating any negative reactions from his 18th century audience. Hippolitus’ love for Aricia makes for an interesting plot device, that makes Phèdre’s approach pre-destined to fail. But at the same time it creates another layer of tension as the viewer is wondering through the scene of her confession of her savage passion for Hippolitus if he will abandon Aricia and give in to temptation! To be slightly petulant, seeing how ravishing Dame Helen looked in costume we should have changed his mind!
It is worth mentioning that the rest of the cast was wonderful, with a slight reservation for Stanley Townsend’s Theseus who was not helped by the mid 20th century costume to not look like a deranged beer-lout. His volume was deafening. It took us aback after Mirren’s subtle naturalistic take on her character. Margaret Tyzack as Oenone was excellent as she was a textbook attendant for the Queen, full of compassion, experience and an ever so slightly dry sense of humour. She had the kind of gravitas you would expect to find on a performance of Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba. But in another way it made Dominic Cooper look far too young to be the object of affection for Phèdre. It has been commented upon as an odd bit of casting and it did not made sense to me at the start. But then I hadn’t watched Mama Mia! (the movie) unlike the rest of the crowd! I had no idea that the movie had propelled him to the sphere of instantly recognisable stardom…which explains all the gasps in the auditorium. But it was really funny at the time as it made me feel that I had lost contact with the rest of the world. As my friend Klarita would say, I have been possibly listening to too many opera recordings from the 1950s.
All in all it was a triumph for the National Theatre and I am really glad they toured it to Greece and the US.