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.
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