Review – Phèdre (or Phedre) with Helen Mirren, National Theatre

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Phedre_1490GadyLPhedre or Phèdre? The National Theatre’s website can’t seem to decide whether to opt for the grave accent or not.

And while we’re talking about the vacillations of the NT, when did The Royal National Theatre revert to being just a plain old National Theatre again? Nobody told us. Has Her Maj stopped popping over to the South Bank to get her fill of the classics or does she feel that with Helen Mirren DBE in residence no one will miss her?

Well it may not be Royal any more but the Whingers were feeling utterly regal and like proverbial pigs in a Caryl Churchill play last night when they arrived to see Ted Hughes’ version of  Jean Racine‘s Greek tragedy. For they found themselves with the prospect of an evening spent in the company of two theatrical Dames of the British Empire and a proscenium arch.

Yes two Dames! One either side of the proscenium! They were in Dame heaven.

Eileen Atkins DBE was enjoying a pre-show chinwag on the table next to the Whingers with stage Calendar Girl Siân Phillips CBE (who pleasured the Whingers at Pizza on the Park recently) and Edward Hibbert (camp restaurant critic Gil Chesterton in Phil’s all-time favourite sitcom Frasier ).

On the scheduled side of things, there was film Calendar Girl and Dame 2, Helen Mirren to look forward to.

The Whingers were certainly in a very good mood despite the prospect of two uninterrupted hours of Greek doom and gloom (director Nicholas Hytner has wisely opted for no interval so strap a urine bottle under your slacks).

The story of Phèdre (Dame 2) is yer typical Greek tragedy baloney. Hubby Theseus (Stanley Townsend), King of Athens is away at war, missing presumed dead. His wife Phèdre has fallen in love with her step-son Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper) who in turn is in love with Aricia (Ruth Negga), sole survivor of the royal house overthrown by Theseus who has forbidden her to marry in order to protect himself. But Theseus, it turns out, is not dead but has merely been covered in bat guano for some years and he turns up again shortly after Phèdre has declared her love to Hippolytus. What can she do? She plans to accuse Hippolytus of seducing her on the advice of her nurse Oenone (Margaret Tyzack) who has a line in horrible scheming, possibly because she’s struggling with her dentures. Anyway, you can see it’s all going to end in tears.

The set (Bob Crowley) of the royal court in Troezen on the north eastern tip of the Pelopponese reminded Phil of one of Ken Adam‘s James Bond villain’s lairs but carved out of a giant piece of Stilton. The cheese theme has then apparently been embraced by the players who combine it with some to cook up something of a theatrical croque monsieur.

Perhaps there is no other way of doing Greek drama but there is an awful lot of actorly declaiming, excessive use of the word “expiate” and every character takes the opportunity to hurl themselves to the floor waving their arms in the air and wailing at least once. Dame Helen does this from the off and it seemed unkind not to laugh.

The only person who understandably doesn’t sink to the floor every five minutes is the wonderful Miss Tyzack who  presumably would take some time getting up again. The Whingers would have paid double the ticket price to see the scene in which she throws herself off the cliff, but sadly, this being a Greek drama, one sees nothing, it is all reported.

Michael Hawcoft’s programme article “Racine and Phèdre” talks about 17th century staging of the play:

How did the actors manage to secure the audience’s attention? They performed in a declamatory style: they employed an artificially emphatic pronunciation and intonation; and they made extensive use of gesture.

So no change there then.

Townsend – a sort of Welsh Orson Welles – is very loud but rather good as Theseus despite looking less like a King and more like a twitcher in a costume borrowed from Bill Oddie.

But despite the declamatory style the Lyttelton auditorium seemed to be suffering from the curse of the Olivier. Huge chunks of dialogue were lost to The Whingers even in rows F and G of the stalls (we are told things sounded better from the upstairs bit). The set doesn’t seem to be bouncing the sound back. Perhaps cheese absorbs sound. Who knew that?

It all picks up towards the end as Théramène (John Shrapnel) appears covered in blood and describes Hippolytus’s very silly death. He almost makes you believe it happened. Though with the National’s resources the Whingers of course would have preferred and expected to see the scene where his chariot is attacked by a giant sea monster, but Shrapnel is compelling enough to let that one go. As the company joined hands for their curtain call they noted that Tyzack didn’t hold Shrapnel’s bloodied hand. You’d think after her years in theatre she’d realise that it’ll wash off.

But Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Mamma Mia The Movie) is utterly miscast. When we hear Théramène’s account of the the brave and prologued death of the seemingly indestructible Hippolytus it’s difficult to imagine Cooper in the chariot seat fighting off the sea monster. He is less the “tiger” referred to in the text; more of a particularly well-groomed and insouciant domestic shorthair with a brain the size of a walnut – certainly from his lack of response he seems not to have grasped at all the severity of the terrible curse of Neptune that Theseus places upon him.

The audience reaction was somewhat muted. Four people ovated in the stalls, one of whom was identifably American so doesn’t count.

But what of Dame 2? Strangely, after the Whingers had emptied their bladders with synchonised sighs of relief and settled down with a bottle (not the ones strapped to their legs you understand) and with Webcowgirl and her own entourage they chewed over the production and performances but nothing was said of Dame Helen. She was fine. But she was really good in that advert for Virgin Atlantic. But did you know that those weren’t actually her legs? True fact.


If you really want to see Phèdre and can’t get a ticket there’s a live broadcast to about 65 cinemas round the world on June 25th


18 Responses to “Review – Phèdre (or Phedre) with Helen Mirren, National Theatre”

  1. Something must be wrong with my wiring then cause I ended up liking it. Not raving as it were but I thought it was altogether a good production seeing it on the 2nd preview.

  2. […] to me (some Dame Shawn somebody and someone from an American sitcom I never watched, details on their review), but it couldn’t distract me from the fact I had two of the funniest guys in London sitting […]

  3. sandown Says:

    The National Theatre became “Royal” in 1988, to mark 25 years since its founding in 1963.

    The Chairman of the National Theatre Board asked the Queen to convey the royal title, which of course she was obliged to do, despite the horrendous evening she had spent at the official opening of the current concrete monstrosity in 1976. The play was an unfunny Goldoni comedy, given an idiomatic translation, and there was one moment at which the leading actor, Stephen Rea, shouted the line “Piss off!” in a raucous Irish accent, directly at the area where the Queen was sitting.

    The artistic management of the National, being leftists, were not keen to accept the title either, but they too had no alternative.

    It was also bound to cause confusion with the Royal Shakespeare Company. During this era, one could assume that any theatre calling itself “Royal” — such as the Royal Court or the RSC — was Trotskyite; whereas any theatre calling itself “National” — such as the National Theatre of Great Britain — was merely anti-British.

  4. sandown Says:

    A correction to the third paragraph above. It should of course read: “any subsidised theatre calling itself “Royal” … etc.

    The subsidised theatres are keen enough on the Queen when they receive those oblong pieces of paper with her head printed on them, courtesy of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

  5. People ovated? You mean, their ovaries released eggs? Wow, must have been some play.

    Oh no, thats “ovulated”.

    I had my fill of Greek Tragedy with Ralph’s “Oedipus”, ta very much. And of Racine with Judi’s “Madame de Sade”. So a Greek Tragedy translated by Racine? Nooooooooo thank you very much.

  6. I don’t suppose they did it in French…? I studied this play for my A2 French coursework (along with Antigone) and while it’s a fantastic story, the speeches do drag a bit. I’m hoping to see the cinema broadcast, much as it pains me to see theatre in the cinema, to compare it to a god-awful production of “Antigone” I saw a month or two ago at the Barbican.

  7. Sam London Says:

    I agree the play’s the problem. I did see this with Glenda Jackson back at the Old Vic with my for A/0 French class in 1984 or 5. And even Glenda couldn’t save it. But they did have a life size model of a dead horse on the stage for that scene with the aftermath of battle. It’s head fell open and lots of red ooze gushed down the stage while terribly long speeches were recited. The audience laughed. It was really irredeemable. I suspect it may have been instrumental in Ms Jackson’s eventual decision to quit for politics?
    By the way… did you know she’s one of the few MPs who claimed NO expenses.

  8. Natasha Says:

    The gentleman sat beside me was definitely snoring at one point, but he did wake up for John Shrapnel’s account of Hippolytus’ death, one of the strongest aspects of the production, I agree.

  9. Ian Says:

    Hmm…..have to say I thought Shrapnel’s seam monsters and chariots bit was hammy….but I guess it’s such a long speech you’ve got to do something with it. Thought Cooper was great – he struck me as just the kind of damn young fool who might take on the kraken single handed. And boy could he do indignant when his dad ticked him off. But the Dame only really came to life for me when seduction was called for. And she does that so very well.

  10. Mary Says:

    I think the main critic was very unkind about Phedre – this is the first opportunity we have had in our cinema, which was packed to the rafters, to see a live London Theatre Production in our own backyard.

    Yes, there were long speeches superbly handled by the cast. I know this is a first to us but our very knowledgable audience thoroughly enjoyed the play and are looking forward to seeing other live plays on our screen.

  11. Essjay Says:

    I agree with Mary that it was a brilliant opportunity for those of us too far from London to enjoy the shows regularly, to catch up with a bit of culture.
    A few wrinkles to be ironed out before the next time the National Theatre tries this in October (perhaps programmes?) but a worthwhile exercise.

  12. clairace Says:

    I agree the actual play is fairly weak in its unrelenting melodrama but there was a lot to like about the production, the use of ambient sound was excellent and I thought Dominic Cooper was perfectly cast and utterly belivable at all times. By the way, Stanley Townsend is Irish not Welsh!

  13. Peter Says:

    The set may have been made of cheese but it was stunning and set off the costuming perfectly. We had a small but appreciative audience here in northern New York state, U.S. (tough to pull a big theater crowd on a Thursday during holiday season). My only real complaint with the production is that the audio levels on the actor’s microphones was uneven and occasionally distorted. I felt all the leads did a fine job. Unlike WEW, I thought Cooper played his role to character. I only regret that distance necessitated missing the pre- and post-performance festivities! I look forward to more productions of this type!

  14. David Says:

    I’ve been to films where the audience applauded. Last night at the Picturehouse in Exeter very few did. That was despite us having enjoyed two hours of high-octane drama and some stunning performances. Logically, should we applaud? The artists can’t hear us. But both the stage play and the TV presentation deserve a lengthy and gusty clap and shouts for “More! More!”. And all for just £10 – high-definition value, I would say.

  15. Tivnana Says:

    I have a lot of trouble with names. So I was always going to struggle here. I spent much of the play trying to attach visual metaphores to the characters. So Hippolytus was a hippo who turned blue in an alkaline bath (like litmus); Oenone was Yoko Ono with a horses head (na-a-a-ay), Théramène was one of those strange electronic instruments that you put your hand through to make a Doctor Who-like noise, Aricia was the hugely over-sized ear of Harry Rednapp etc. This created a fascinating alternative version of the play where hippos were gambolling with Horses, John Pertwee conducted an electronic orchestra at John and Yoko’s Bed-In, and the whole of the Spurs team turned into Smurfs in the after-match shower. Two hours flew by. I highly recommend it as a way of enjoying Greek Tragedies. Or any of the classics, in fact.

  16. JA Messer Says:

    Unique experience to be in a provincial NZ cinema last night and be part of the National Theatre audience – interesting performance but not great – wonderful set, strange confusion of costumes – woman in black dress looked as if she’d just emerged from an 80s dinner party – and sometimes so did Dame Helen, anguishing over the crepes. Stanley Townsend was wooden and unconvincing – I’ve seen more passionate, intelligent acting in amateur theatre in backwoods NZ. With access to thousands of actors in UK I would have expected better. 5 out of 10.

  17. kayte denham Says:

    I thought the pitch of the play was set too high from the start as a result of the actors being aware of their part in the ‘magnificent experiment’. Early scenes were even uncomfortable to watch. Dame Mirren was her usual riveting self, and I thought admirably balanced the difficulty of performing to our modern, cynical need for authenticity in performance against the Ancient Greek tradition of operatic performance that the play calls for. Generally, the female actors were always interesting to watch, while the male actors were less able to find balance and rose and sank like soufflé’s in their deliveries. The sound was crap. More please.

  18. Jennifer McLeod Says:

    As an avid Dame Helen Mirren fan, I caught an NT Live screening of “Phedre” in Chicago.

    I had mixed feelings about the production.

    The usually flawless Dame Helen seemed a trifle awkward, almost overacting, in the early scenes but, the confidence and riveting power of her performance steadily heightened throughout the play, hitting its apogee in the scenes where Phedre first confesses her love to Hippolytus and where she first discovers that Hippolytus is in love with Aricia.

    After Dame Helen, the most delightful (and funniest) performance was Margaret Tyzack as Phedre’s faithful maid.

    Ruth Negga was also quite good as Aricia and, gives an arrestingly powerful performance in the last scene of the play.

    Unfortunately, the male performers do not fare quite as well. Dominic Cooper is adequate but not entirely convincing as Hippolytus – his performance seemed to hinge more on his display of muscular biceps and GQ-esque poses than acting prowess. And the actor who portrayed Theseus, Phedre’s husband, was unequivocally terrible.

    Though I enjoy much of Ted Hughes’ poetry, much of the translated dialogue in the play seemed over-the-top and unintentionally hilarious – many audience members who viewed the play with me were tittering at scenes that were not supposed to be humorous.

    Also, the use of modern-day clothing was very distracting and, detracted from the overall mood and atmosphere of the play.

    I would recommend this play for all devoted Helen Mirren fans.

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