13 October 2009


Last February, after the Washington Post had announced that Helen Mirren, star of the PBS series Prime Suspect, the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I, and the films Calendar Girls and The Queen (for which she won an Oscar), would bring her National Theatre production of Jean Racine’s Phèdre to the Shakespeare Theatre Company in the fall, I asked my mom to try to score tix when they went on sale to the general public. (STC was offering the show as a bonus to its subscribers, though the production was outside the regular season. Mother had been a subscriber in the past, but hadn’t renewed for several years.) As you might guess, considering that this 9-day visit by the London troupe, Mirren’s Washington début, was going to be the only one in the U.S., the available seats were all booked by the time Mom got through to the STC box office on the day the tix went on sale last April. The papers reported that the production sold out in four hours, though that turned out not to be precisely true. STC was making a notification list for returned tix, however, and since my mother has no computer, she gave the theater my name and e-mail address. All summer long, I kept looking through the spam and personal messages in hopes that some couple had decided to go to Florida or something and had given up their seats for the play, but all I got from STC were announcements of their season’s offerings, solicitations for subscriptions (which included tix to Phèdre), and the notice that a video of the performance would be screened for anyone who didn’t get seats. (Look for this video on TV sometime next year, I would say.) As September neared, I despaired that tix would ever be available, but all of a sudden there was an e-mail from STC that some seats had opened up, including an additional performance on Wednesday, 16 September, the day before the scheduled opening.

I got the message in the early afternoon of Friday, 11 September, and immediately called my mom, hoping she hadn’t gone out that day and could get on to the box office right away. I was afraid that however many new tix STC was offering would go the way of the original sale and sell out before Mom could make the call. She was out, but called me back shortly and was able to call the STC box office before the end of the business day. Seats were available all across the performance schedule, and mom took the best she could arrange for her preferences. What appears to have happened was that, aside from adding the preview on the 16th, STC had released all the seats they were reserving for new subscribers, probably figuring that with only six days left before opening, not enough new subscribers would be signing up to fill the seats being held back. (The production closed on Saturday, 26 September.) Our good fortune, I guess. So now we had matinee seats for the performance on Wednesday, 23 September, at STC’s still-new Sidney Harman Hall, its second theater on F Street, N.W., up the street and around the corner from the main space, the Lansburgh Theatre on N.W. 7th Street.

I had really wanted to see this show for several reasons. First, I’ve never seen Phèdre on stage. (I saw Jules Dassin’s 1962 film version of the myth, Phaedra, starring Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins, back when I was in college, but that’s a different adaptation, modernized, of Euripides’ Hippolytus, not based on Racine’s 18th-century play. Seneca also has a Phaedra, but I’ve never read it.) I read the play in French in college and I’ve read Hippolytus in English translation, but I’ve never had an opportunity to see Racine’s play performed. Furthermore, like most theater people, seeing performances by leading actors is always a special draw, irrespective of the role or the play. Mirren doing Phèdre is akin to Redgrave doing Hecuba, McKellen doing Lear, or Harriet Walter as Elizabeth I and Janet McTeer as Mary of Scotland in Mary Stuart. (I don’t mean to make it seem that only British actors interest me, so I’ll quickly add in F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in Merchant and Barabas in The Jew of Malta.) Finally, this was the only U.S. stop for this production, so it felt like a sort of coup to get to see it.

I don’t imagine I need to summarize the plot of Phèdre for any of you, but just for the sake of simplifying this report, I’ll remind everyone that it’s the story of Theseus’ second wife who conceives an uncontrollable passion for her stepson, Hippolytus. (Shakespeare followers will recognize that the wedding of Theseus and his first wife, Hippolyta, was the cause for the enchanted merriment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At Stratford, Ontario, this year, the same actor, Tom McCamus, played Theseus in both plays.) Racine added a few elements, most notably the romance between Hippolytus and Aricia, whom Theseus has held under house arrest because her family, the House of Erechtheus, had attempted to dethrone him in a coup. At the beginning of the play, Athens erroneously hears that Theseus, who has been abroad for six months, had been killed in captivity. Hippolytus ought to be the heir to his father’s kingdom, but his mother was an Amazon and Athens has a law that no foreigner could rule the city. This leaves his half-brother, Phèdre’s son by Theseus, as the heir-apparent. Hippolytus, declaring his love for Aricia, frees her, but Phèdre confesses her passion for Hippolytus, who spurns her in disgust. Though they aren’t related by blood, Phèdre’s marriage to his father makes her desire for Hippolytus tantamount to incest. (Racine’s contemporary and rival, Jacques Pradon, wrote his own version of the myth and, to avoid the incest--and hence the dramatic center of the play--he made Phèdre merely Theseus’ fiancée rather than his wife. Pradon and his plays have largely been forgotten for just this sort of tactic.) The rivalries having been established, Theseus unexpectedly returns. Before Hippolytus can reveal the truth, Oenone, the queen’s loyal, but sly, nurse who had exhorted the queen to confess her love for Hippolytus in order to preserve Athens for her son against the claim of Aricia, accuses Hippolytus of the attempted rape of his stepmother and Theseus banishes him from Athens and calls on Neptune, the god of the sea, to punish him. (Racine used the Roman name for the sea god and Hughes remains faithful to the original here.) On his way to marry Aricia at a temple among the royal tombs, Hippolytus, his horses spooked by a sea monster, is dragged to his death behind his chariot. (Neptune was also god of horses. Note that Hippolytus’ name means ‘horse liberator.’) Oenone throws herself off the cliff upon which the villa stands and Phèdre kills herself with poison. Theseus is left to grieve in guilt for his distrust of Hippolytus’ honesty and virtue. Alone now, he reaches out to Aricia, who has brought Hippolytus’ mangled body home, as his daughter.

(A word about the characters’ names. I don’t know why, but in Ted Hughes’s translation, some names retain their French spellings, accent marks and all--Phèdre, Théramène, Ismène--and others have reverted to their Anglo-Greek equivalents--Hippolytus, Theseus, Aricia. I’m following the program, so get used to the jumbled orthography.)

Aside from the obvious, there are some huge challenges to staging Phèdre (1677). The most demanding, arguably, is the fact that Jean Racine (1639-99) was the most loyal practitioner of French Neoclassicism, the dramatic application of the Age of Reason. The myth of Phèdre is fraught with violence and bloody acts, but all of them take place off stage. Momentous events follow on one another like elephants in a circus parade because the rules require that the play take place within one day so Racine starts his plays near the climax. (The other two of the three unities, an invention of the Neoclassicists, are actually advantages: the play takes place in one place and has a single, unified plot. Racine’s contemporary, Pierre Corneille, liked to violate these sanctions.) Beginning near the story’s peak, of course, means that the actors all start at a high emotional pitch and the tension only rises from there. Everyone has long speeches, the juiciest of which go to the messengers and servants who relate all that violence that happens in the wings. There’s almost no plain dialogue and no stichomythia. Because Racine made Phèdre the principal character (Euripides and Seneca focused on Hippolytus), the men and the other women, except possibly Oenone, come off as flat figures with little personality or force. Further, the tension is psychological--Racine, who’s considered avant-garde for his time, was one of the first classical playwrights to create psychologically realistic characters--which makes the action mostly internal and individual. People struggle with themselves more than with each other. This is all inherent in Racine’s dramaturgy and there’s nothing the translator, director, or actors can do to change it so they all have to work with it. There is also the impediment that French plays generally don’t go over well on American stages; even Molière doesn’t play as well as Schiller. (Something to do with the translation, apparently. German is closer to English than French, so rendering German plays into the English idiom works more colloquially than it does for all those Gallicisms. Go know!)

For the National Theatre production (11 June-27 August, Lyttleton Theatre, London), director Nicholas Hytner, the company’s artistic director, chose the translation by poet Ted Hughes which premièred with Diana Rigg in the title role at the Festival Theatre Malverne just before Hughes’s death in 1998. (There’s a new translation by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker that preemed at the Ontario Shakespeare Festival earlier this year, but I don’t know any more about it than that.) The Hughes rendering’s a very actable free-verse version that sounds neither stiffly academic nor anachronistically contemporary. (Racine’s original French text is in rhymed alexandrine couplets, very much in line with the formality and intellectuality of Neoclassicism.) Since I’m a theater person, not a lit person, my inclination is always to go with the playable script over the verbatim translation. I’ve dared to do a little retranslating of Chekhov and Anouilh myself now and then because I didn’t like the English text of a speech as published. Now, original texts can be treasure troves of useful information that’s been lost in the English versions, but I don’t see any reason it all has to be shoehorned into the translations. My final criterion for a translation for the stage is actability, not literary faithfulness to the original, and I think Hughes’s rendition is much more actable than, say, Richard Wilbur’s rhyming verses for Molière. As Shaw wrote (alluding to his own work): Some people’s plays read well, but they don’t act well.

(I once retranslated a verse of an aria my character sang in Chekhov’s Wood Demon because the lyrics provided didn’t fit the melody from the opera. I had identified the opera--with the help of the original Russian text and a Russian book and record store in my neighborhood--found the sheet music and a recording of it in the library, and tried to fit the words in the translation to the notes, but they didn’t match, so I rewrote them. Neither Chekhov nor the translator ever complained to me! As an acting teacher of mine would say, We don’t have their phone numbers--to which I’d add, And they don’t have ours.)

The first thing that greeted us when the curtain rose for Phèdre was the set by Bob Crowley (who also designed the costumes). The sun was shining brightly--lighting was by Paule Constable--invoking the Aegean locale (the play takes place in Troezen, a Peloponnesian coastal town southwest of Athens), and the sky was bright turquoise. As the play progressed though its dawn-to-dusk arc, the sun intensified, then set and the sky brightened, then darkened until it was evening by the final scene of mourning and grief. (There’s a mythological rationale for the prominence of the sun here: Phèdre was descended from Apollo, the sun god, whom, she says in the play, sees everything and is watching her actions.) The set, which served for both Theseus’ villa and Alicia’s home prison, was a kind of terrace, a stone platform with the entrance to the house at the stage right edge and a large boulder upstage, serving as one of the main entrances and exits. At the left was a sandy patch leading to a low wall, beyond which appeared to be a drop to the sea below. There was a spigot set into the stage right wall near the downstage edge of the platform where the characters often drew water to wash with or drink. The upstage end of the terrace was raised with stairs leading up to the rear platform several feet higher than the main acting area; it was around the boulder upstage that entrances from outside the villa were made. Below the main terrace, down a few steps, was a rough, gravelly strip of terrain that suggested the landscape was rather barren and stony. There were a few metal patio chairs scattered around the terrace. Suspended above all this, a kind of roof, was a swath of concrete that looked to me exactly like the underside of the FDR Drive as it winds along the East River--the way you view the southbound roadway from the northbound side as you’re driving along. It was as if the play were set under the highway! (I can’t imagine that Crowley intended this to be his design image, and probably no one but me saw it this way, but I swear that’s exactly what it looked like.) Except for the costumes, there was no color anywhere; except for the characters, there were no living things. The overall effect was one of barren, bleached, lifeless immensity, boxed in and baked by a merciless sun.

I started with the set because, besides being the first image of the production, it literally envelops the events of the play. I almost felt a sense of release when Hippolytus steps down off the terrace onto the stony strip along the apron because he’s come out from under that overhang. (The actors entering from upstage, around that immense boulder, made me feel they almost had to duck down until they came down the stairs onto the terrace.) Having started with the design, I guess now’s a good point to mention the costumes, Crowley’s other contribution to the stage world. Just as the terrace was essentially modern--the spigot, the concrete construction, the patio chairs--so were the costumes, but without any reference to a specific period or culture. Mirren wore a sheath dress, often purple but also off-white, that was both slinky-sexy and severe. Mirren’s no young chick, of course, but even at 64 she projects a lithe sensuality that is only enhanced by the gracefully mature face. When she was on stage with Dominic Cooper, who, at 31, played Hippolytus, she made him look like the callow student he played in The History Boys (London stage, 2004; Broadway and film, 2006). Mirren’s dresses sometimes had a cowl which she occasionally wore up, and the other women’s costumes were variations of the same sheath: Oenone’s in black with more volume and a shawl; Aricia’s white with pleats across the abdomen. The men wore varying degrees of military dress, from a pair of guards in full army regalia to Theseus and Hippolytus in commando drag, with combat boots and bloused trousers. The men’s sidearms, however, were short swords rather than pistols. It was a curious little anachronism, but it worked well enough.

I guess it’s time now to get to what most of you want to know: How did Helen Mirren do? Short answer: she did fine. The British press was mixed on her performance (and the production in general), some critics saying the movie star was more than equal to the role, “spellbinding,” “filling” the stage, and “riveting” the audience. “You knew that she was Phèdre as Racine meant Phèdre to be," wrote Benedict Nightingale of the London Times. Others complained that Mirren “played Phèdre last night, and lost” (Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, paraphrasing a John Mason Brown remark) and suggested that Phèdre’s “passion is best implied not spoken” (Michael Coveney, Independent). But Peter Marks of the Washington Post decided that “whatever bumps existed must have been smoothed over” by the time the production opened here, and I think he must have been right because the problems I had with the performances weren’t about Mirren (and were at least partly inherent in the script).

My friend Diana said she couldn’t see Mirren as Phèdre because the actress was too strong for the part. I didn’t understand that observation unless Diana misunderstands the character somehow. (Neither Diana Rigg nor Melina Mercouri portray weak women as a rule. I doubt if they could. I mean, two words, ladies and gentlemen: Emma Peel. ‘Nuff said.) As Mirren showed on stage at the Harman, Phèdre is a woman who has been caught up in her own emotions despite her efforts to fight them. (In the myth, and Euripides’ version of the play, the gods, especially Venus and Diana, are at the bottom of the queen’s passion for Hippolytus--it’s out of her hands. Racine doesn’t depend so much on divine caprice, but puts the emphasis on Phèdre’s emotions and psyche.) No matter how much she fights the attraction--and she had had Hippolytus banished from Athens before the play began--she can’t free herself. (Troezen is actually Hippolytus’ residence; it’s where he’s been living in exile. It’s Theseus’ fault that his wife has been sent into his son’s company again: he sent his family to Troezen while he was abroad on one of his adventures.) So distraught is Phèdre at her inability to throw off the lust she feels, that she is willing herself to die even as the play opens. When Mirren entered, she was at such a psychological low, she was literally bent over. Her emotional pitch, however, was sky-high. It was Oenone, in Margaret Tyzack’s powerful portrayal, who took control of her mistress. When Mirren confessed to Tyzack, it was with such reluctance and fear of the consequences that it was like watching someone rip her own heart out. As I mentioned earlier, Racine starts his plays at the moment just before the climax so that the arc of tension rises precipitously. Mirren’s Phèdre pushed forward in a headlong race to her own destruction even as we watched her try to put on the brakes. Once having confessed to Oenone her love for Hippolytus, she is compelled to confront her stepson in person. (Cooper ran to the faucet and feverishly washed his face and hands to rid himself of Phèdre’s contaminating touch.) When Theseus’ return is announced and she’s caught in the trap (Oenone has told Theseus the lie of Hippolytus assault on Phèdre), she has no choice now but to back the false story. When Theseus curses his own son and calls down Neptune’s punishment, Phèdre is forced now to end the crisis with her own death. It’s all an out-of-control snowball and as much as Mirren showed us Phèdre’s fight against her internal demons, she was also beyond her own ability to stop. Weakness would never work in this role, even as Phèdre fails.

My impression of Mirren as an actor is that she is always in control of what she’s doing. To assume that because she played a hyper-controlled dame in The Queen, reserved to the point of catatonia, she’s an emotionless actor is to overlook the raw nerve ends that she exposed as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect over a period of years. I don’t know if she’s a technical performer--many top British actors are, Stanislavsky not having penetrated the British craft the way it dominated here--but she selects the kind of behavior and psychology her characters need and then thoroughly embodies them. In Phèdre, neither Mirren nor any of the other actors shouted, screamed, or chewed the scenery, but there was passion beneath her every move and utterance. This queen was lovesick in the most literal sense of the word. I often repeat an expression one of my acting teachers liked to use to describe an actor who’s working with carefully selected adjustments which remain secret and unrevealed: She’s up to something. We may not have been able to diagnose Mirren’s technique--but she was up to something all the time. We didn’t know what Phèdre was feeling or thinking, but we could always see what the outcome was.

Tyzack, a veteran and venerated character performer, was the second-strongest actor on the stage--principally because Oenone is the second-strongest character in the play. The nurse/mother-surrogate is cunning and resourceful, but she’s zealously loyal to her mistress (who brought her to Athens from Minos so she predates Phèdre’s marriage to Theseus). When Phèdre is literally wasting away, Oenone fights to keep her alive. After the queen reveals her lust for Hippolytus and then Theseus is rumored to be dead, Oenone begs Phèdre to tell Hippolytus of her passion and align with him to protect the throne for her son. It is this single act that precipitates the tragedy and it’s at Oenone’s insistence that Phèdre takes the step. It’s also Oenone who tells Theseus the lie that condemns Hippolytus and springs the trap on Phèdre. But in Tyzack’s portrayal, these weren’t the acts of an evil woman, a Lady Macbeth-manqué or a gender-reversed Iago. The Washington Times’s Jane Blanchard described Oenone as “self-serving,” but she was wrong: it wasn’t herself Tyzack’s nurse served, it was Mirren’s queen. Tyzack’s Oenone truly believed she was protecting her mistress, first from her own distress, then from the potential usurpation of Hippolytus and Aricia, and finally from the accusation Hippolytus would surely make against her if the nurse didn’t speak out first. While Mirren was careening from pillar to post emotionally and psychologically, Tyzack was all coolness and guile--single-minded and misguided, to be sure, but firm. Tyzack’s Oenone was a mother--a bent mother, but a mother still.

The production’s weak points are in the rest of the supporting cast. Or, perhaps I should say supporting roles because, as I suggested, the fault was to a large extent Racine’s. I’m not even sure that Hytner could have overcome the innate difficulties short of getting a rewrite. Both Theseus (Stanley Townsend ) and Hippolytus came off weak, especially considering the parts they play in the myth. Theseus is one of Greece’s great heroes but this king dithers and behaves indecisively--except when he takes Oenone’s tale as true without even listening to Hippolytus’ account. Then he behaves entirely precipitously. (Why Townsend spoke in a north-country accent--he’s the only actor who did--I didn’t understand. It made the King of Athens into a Yorkshire ruffian. Peter Marks described him as “less a king than a pirate,” which isn’t half wrong.) Townsend’s a big guy, but his Theseus was not the man I’d have imagined had killed the Minotaur--but the odd accent aside, it wasn’t his acting that caused this.

Hippolytus, the young stallion who turns not only Phèdre’s head but Aricia’s, too, is a boy here. (Most reviews, both in Washington and London, praised Cooper’s work. I demur.) As I said, Cooper’s 31, which is no kid, and he’s a budding screen heartthrob they say (whoever “they” are). A great deal of this came from the contrast of Mirren’s Phèdre opposite him because Mirren not only blew him off the stage, but Phèdre, as I pointed out, is a far more powerful role than Hippolytus in Racine’s version of the myth. But Cooper didn’t put much life into the role, either. The only other classical play in his bio is Midsummer (it doesn’t say what part he played, but I’ll guess one of the two young loverboys--he doesn’t strike me as a Puck-type). Perhaps he just doesn’t have the chops yet for this kind of work, especially if he has to go up against Helen Mirren or some other powerhouse actress. Unfortunately, with a namby-pamby Hippolytus, it wasn’t as easy to believe that Phèdre would conceive so unconquerable a passion as she must have; it placed the burden much more on Phèdre’s mental state than on anything the object of her desire might have offered.

Cooper was just a little dull on stage, but the actor with whom I had the most trouble was John Shrapnel as Théramène, Hippolytus’ tutor. The character has several scenes, but only two really big moments. One opens the play, when he tries to shake Hippolytus out of his lassitude and learns that his student has fallen in love with his father’s great enemy, Aricia of the House of Erechtheus. The second is the gruesome description of Hippolytus’ death at the end of the play. Shrapnel seems to have trouble coordinating his body movements with his words. No matter what he’s saying, whether the comradely advice he gives the young prince in the first scene or the bloody speech of the last act, his physical actions were jerky and artificial, as if Hytner had told him a few performances ago to add some gestures and movement to the part and he hadn’t gotten beyond the technical stage yet. In that big speech, with all its emotional content--the man’s describing the mutilation and dismemberment of his student, friend, and long-time companion to the boy’s own father, for God’s sake--Shrapnel never seemed to connect to the horrible event at all. It was a little like the actor were recounting a particularly complex rugby play or something. From an acting point of view, it’s the best speech in the play, and he just wasn’t that into it. When I was an actor, I’d have killed for a moment like that on stage! (Of course, I was a bit of a ham, which may be why I didn’t last very long.)

Finally, poor Aricia. What a nebbish role--poor dear. She’s tacked on, of course: the character isn’t in Hippolytus--she exists in mythology and may even have married Hippolytus in one version of the story in which he’s brought back to life by Asclepius, the healing god--so Racine added her to give Hippolytus, who renounced love before the play begins, a reason for rejecting Phèdre aside from her marriage to his father. (Theseus, after all, is reported dead, nullifying any ethical problem.) It is this love that sends Phèdre off on her ultimate rant, since she learns that the object of her passion hasn’t rejected her because he won’t love anyone: he can love, just not her. The final scene in which the grief-stricken Theseus turns to Aricia as his daughter is an invention of Racine’s. For all this, the role is the skimpiest in the play and though young Ruth Negga made a pretty princess and did her best to project a determined scion of her family standing up to the tyrant who deposed and executed them years before, she had little opportunity to do much but look resolute.

Directorily, Hytner kept everyone under control: there was minimal movement or gesticulation. The actors were often separated by several feet of empty stage, as if they are being restrained by an invisible force, so that the times that they came into physical contact, such as Phèdre’s declaration of love to Hippolytus or Theseus embrace of Aricia at the end of the play, were almost shocking. Racine and the Neoclassicists can seem cool, even cold, and the restraint of the alexandrine poetry can lead readers into thinking the plays are intellectual rather than emotional. (On stage, I gather that the plays have often been emoted with histrionics and bombast in contrast.) Hytner held his cast to a stillness that wasn’t calm or remoteness but intensity barely under control. Some of the actors pulled this off more convincingly that others, as I’ve noted, but the director had it right, I think, given what I know of Racine, Neoclassicism (I was a French major), and the need to interpret the style for a contemporary audience. (From what I understand of other translations, Hughes’s handles this approach best, too. The old standard, by John Cairncross, is far more literary than theatrical, and Charles Isherwood of the New York Times characterized the Wertenbaker rendering as lacking Hughes’s “thrust and potency.”) Keeping the color palate limited, too, made the appearances of color, such as Phèdre’s purple gown, more expressive as well. When Theseus crossed left to the sand patch, calling down Neptune’s wrath on his son, he knelt and poured a goblet of red wine onto the sand, a blood-red offering to secure a blood curse.

When you come down to it, the play’s about Phèdre so it’s no susprise theat the production is, too. Objections about Townsend and Cooper, and even Shrapnel, are mostly quibbles under the circumstances because in Racine’s script their participation is almost negligible. With a powerful and dynamic Phèdre, the play charges along under its own steam regardless, and Mirren drove a pretty decent engine. At two hours, I entirely forgot that the performance had no intermission, which I’d say is a pretty good indication that I didn’t feel unsatisfied. (I’ve had trouble at intermissionless shows that ran 90-minute and even less; this time I never missed the break.) STC got premium prices for the special event, not even making allowances for matinees--and I can’t say I feel at all cheated. Nor do I regret the four-hour bus ride down and the extra week away from home.

I haven’t read anywhere that the National Theatre production of Phèdre is playing in other cities beyond Washington, except one: it went to Epidaurus last July. As I suggested, though, the video of the performance that was shown at theaters around the U.S. last July will almost certainly be broadcast either on PBS or cable sometime soon, and it will also probably be made avialable on DVD as well. In either eventuality, it’s worth a look.

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