Saturday, July 11, 2009

Not Live but Interrupted

On June 25 the National Theatre broadcast live its production of Racine's Phedre to 73 cinemas in London and 200 more around the world. I watched the film, with TCH and HS, at the BAM last Thursday. Not live, alas, but we still enjoyed the infrequent interruptions of satellite transmission. The show was sold-out, even after a second smaller cinema was opened to accommodate the excitement.

I think it is fair to say that the audience was less than impressed after the show. There was little spontaneous applause, unlike the enthusiasm reported by the Guardian's reviewer watching it live in London's Chelsea Cinema. I don't think the scattered applause at the BAM was due to the convention of not clapping after a movie. I have seen audiences clap wildly after a terrific film. The response was lukewarm towards the production itself.

Helen Mirren playing the Queen who has fallen in love with her step-son was good, but not revelatory. Her first entrance struck a note of such emotional intensity that there was little room for it to grow, though she had plenty of reasons for it in the course of the play. I like her best in the scene in which she learned that Hippolytus was not as chaste as she had believed, but had fallen in love with Aricia. Mirren made jealousy real in her body, face and voice in a way she did not quite manage with concealed overwhelming passion.

Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus was good looking enough for the part, though HS disagreed, citing how his facial features seemed squished in a too-small face. My complaint was that he looked too slender and gentle to be a breaker of horses, and a would-be slayer of monsters. He was also posing more than he was acting, though he got better later in the play. Ruth Negga's Aricia was skinny but fiery. I was distracted by Margaret Tyzack's lisping as Oenone, Phedre's servant. Theseus, as played by Stanley Townsend, seemed to come from a different play altogether; TCH said he acted as if he were doing opera.

John Shrapnel delivered a captivating rendition of the big final speech when he described the death of Hippolytus. The poetry is Ted Hughes', who translated Racine's hexameters into free verse with some iambic pentameters thrown in. The Independent reviewer trashed the production for not using a translation more faithful to Racine. The Guardian reviewer praised the broadcast experiment for making theater a less elite and more democratic art form.


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