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Agony in the kitchen extension / Mademoiselle Julie / Barbican Theatre – 24 September 2012

25 Sep

Went with great expectations, despite what a lot of British critics thought was an “unbearably French” production.

The set looks like a rather glamorous all white kitchen extension, so beloved of the bourgeoisie living in the suburbia of North London. What looked like a blank empty space is an expression of the contemporary obsession with sleek kitchens and minimalist extensions straight out of Channel 4’s Grand Designs. Strindberg’s drama may be seen as a realistic play of its time. But in my view the updating worked on many levels. The glass compartments made out of the two parallel layers of glass doors allowed for an interesting contrast in aural and spatial terms. The opening scene acted behind closed doors, the actors sealed away from the audience, their voices transferred by microphones. The party happening on the large space behind the kitchen area, divided by another expanse of glazed doors.  Julie is peeped through transparent curtains dancing in the background, like a vision. When she slides the door to enter the kitchen she brings in the loud music of the party.  A very effective use of the party music, made tangible by the set.
Critics complained that the faces of the three protagonists were not fully visible at the start of the play. Which made me wonder when did that become a pre-requisite of theatre? The layer of glazed separation was intriguing and added frisson. Once the glass partition opened up the rising tension in the box escaped in the auditorium.

Binoche gave a much more histrionic Julie, that usual, in a beautiful (slightly dishevelled) gold lame dress that was attention seeking like her persona. She managed to create the necessary friction and an underlying erotic pulse. The little girl who was left motherless and was brought up largely as a boy was there, on display, and finally free for all to see. Her deep anxiety and impossibility to be fully grown up came through in the shattering confrontation near the end. Her chilling cries over the dead bird and the threats for Jean were heart stopping and strangely juvenile (helped by having to reflect on Bouchaud’s dry witted delivery).

Nicolas Bouchaud was an interesting Jean and despite his lustily sexy advances at Binoche’s Julie he did not convince as a young man with a dream. Dare I wonder why a younger actor was not cast to be the object of her affection/mire?

Bénédicte Cerutti was the balancing force in the first half of the play and suddenly trapped herself in her religiosity avoiding the painful reality surrounding her. Her Kristin was warm to start with and graduated to a much more agitated and impactful final transformation.

Miss Julie does depend on the pent-up frustration and the bringing to the fore of sexual politics and the warring relationship between the two sexes.  Fisbach’s direction did create enough of the otherness of each sex to make it come together and the minimalism of the set did concentrate the mind on the busy text. I do wonder if the sleekness of the treatment was seen by the critics as the main Gallic over-indulgence. After all this play is all about the absent Count being the regulatory premise. The threat of his arrival, the sight of his boots, the memory of his bell ringing. All amounts to three characters that are shadowed by his presence, a benign dictator that has the ultimate say. The escape to Switzerland or to death makes sense under the claustrophobic constraints of this large white box, a metaphor for our lust for the latest thing in life which usually ends up in killing what’s really inside us.

This may not be the quintessential production for all time, but it surely had something interesting to say about our times and Strindberg’s own motives.

Some tweets from the evening

Dame Helen as a Greek Queen with 18th century flourishes and some exraordinary language

7 Oct

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.

 

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