Phèdre (National Theatre)

theat_phedre.jpgThe actors play to the audience rather than the cameras, and the cameras keep a respectful distance to accommodate the theatrical acting style.







St. Louis Art Museum

The great strength, but also the great weakness, of live theater is that it is live. If you want to see a performance, you have to be there when it happens. This is awkward if you’re in St. Louis and Dame Helen Mirren is playing in London, and transatlantic tickets are running $700 and up.

Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of National Theatre (the one in London, not the one in Washington), is heading up a new venture to bridge this gap: NT Live, in which simulcasts of National Theatre performances are broadcast live to movie theaters around the world. The intention is to bring together the best of both worlds: the excitement and intimacy of live theater and the widespread availability of broadcast performances. Judging by the initial offering, this venture should be a great success: in St. Louis. Over 300 people spent part of a sunny Saturday afternoon in thrall to a performance of Phèdre directed by Hytner and featuring an all-star cast including Mirren, Dominic Cooper, Margaret Tyzack and Ruth Negga.

There have been other attempts to create a theater/broadcast hybrid, from Richard Burton’s Hamlet in 1964 (notably successful on Broadway, it played to middling reviews in movie theaters) to the many titles available through the Broadway Theatre Archive. The problem with such efforts is that they often find themselves caught between the demands of two very different media, and as a result produce something which succeeds neither as a film nor as a play.

The NT Live performance of Phèdre avoids this pitfall. The actors play to the audience rather than the cameras, and the cameras (five of them, cut into a single feed in real time, just like they do during sports broadcasts) keep a respectful distance to accommodate the theatrical acting style. Most shots are at least medium-long with many taking in the entire stage, and there’s a minimum of intrusive camera movement and cutting; instead, they try to reproduce the shifting attention of an audience member watching a live performance.

Hytner and Co. didn’t pick an easy winner for their first broadcast. Although a masterpiece of its genre (that would be French neoclassical tragedy), Phèdre is seldom performed (it is not listed once in the performance archives of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, which date back to 1966) and can be a tough sell to audiences used to naturalistic theater. The story draws on Greek mythology and centers on the forbidden love of Phèdre (Helen Mirren) for her stepson Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper), with issues of warfare and succession thrown in as well. The style is declamatory—lots of speeches, with most of the action taking place offstage—and the action can seem silly if you don’t realize that the characters are intentionally written to be exemplars of types rather than people such as you might meet at the supermarket.

In general, the National Theatre production works better when the characters are delivering speeches than when they’re engaging in conversation. The gap between the formal language of the play (translated by Ted Hughes) and what we’ve come to expect in terms of acting style is just too great, and the resulting incongruities sometimes produced giggles from the audience. Cooper and Mirren came in for the worst of it, he for a stiff and distant performance in moments when his character most needs to show vulnerability, and she for an emotion-filled performance which did not always translate well to the camera.

But this is like criticizing Michael Jordan in his prime because he didn’t make every shot in the championship game. The NT Live Phèdre is an outstanding production of an important play, which makes excellent use of technology to bring it to a wider audience. Technical elements, including Bob Crowley’s set design, Paule Constable’s lighting design and Adam Cork’s sound score, enhance the play without drawing undue attention to themselves.

And while all the acting was superb, John Shrapnel deserves particular commendation for his performance as Théramène, friend and counselor to Hippolytus. This at first seems to be a relatively minor role which exists primarily as an aid to exposition, yet Shrapnel stops the show cold (in the good sense) with his final-act speech describing the death of Hippolytus. It’s a master class in acting all by itself, and all the more remarkable because he makes it seem utterly believable that Hippolytus’s chariot was destroyed by a gigantic sea monster sent by Poseidon in response to a curse placed by Theseus (Stanley Townsend), husband of Phèdre and father of Hippolytus. If you can sell that story to a modern audience, you can do anything.

Three additional plays will be featured in NT Live this season: All’s Well That Ends Well on October 1 (or later; as with Phèdre, some theaters will use the tape delay), Nation (based on a novel by Terry Pratchett, adapted by Mark Ravenhill) on January 30, 2010, and The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett in early 2010. Due to scheduled construction, the Art Museum may not be able to host these events, but it’s possible another theater in St. Louis or nearby will pick them up. Further information is available from the NT Live website. However, the Art Museum will continue to present the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts; the 2009-2010 season begins with Tosca in October. | Sarah Boslaugh

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