July 1, 2009

High Praise for the High Def "Phèdre"

There was a time—the summer between 7th and 8th grades—when I was as obsessed with Greek mythology as I now am with theater. So I don’t know how I overlooked the story of Phaedra, the Athenian queen so sexually obsessed with her stepson that she causes his death when he rejects her. When I heard that the great Helen Mirren was playing the role in a touring production of Phèdre, Jean Racine's classic adaptation of the story, I thought I could kill two birds with one stone: catch up with the old story and see a once-in-a-lifetime performance.

Except I waited too long. Single tickets for this fall’s Washington, D.C. performances (the tour's only stop in the U.S.) were sold out when I tried to buy one in May. I got another chance to see it when London’s National Theatre, which is producing the play, announced its new NT Live series. It uses satellite technology to broadcast live performances of selected shows from the company’s home theater on the south bank of The Thames to movie screens around the world. But wouldn’t you know it, I dithered again and tickets for last Thursday night’s premiere broadcast were gone by the time I tried to buy one of them. Thanks to the kindness of friends, I got to see it anyway. Was it worth all the angst? You bet it was.

One thing you can say about the old Greek myths is that they are full of roles for women—Antigone, Electra, Iphigenia, Medea—that are as great as those for men. Smart actresses seek these roles out. And, of course, there are few smarter than Mirren. The actress says she was attracted to the part after reading about Sarah Bernhardt’s legendary turn in the role. (Click here to read an interview with Mirren and her director Nicholas Hytner). It’s hard to imagine that the divine Sarah could have given a more fierce performance than Mirren does. Hell hath no fury—nor passion, nor anguish—like Mirren’s scorned queen.

And she’s not the only reason to see the show. The production uses the Ted Hughes translation of Racine’s 17th century work, and the dialog, though still lyrical, is almost colloquial and easy on the ear. Bob Crowley has created a magnificent set that locates all of the action on an imposing stone sea-side veranda that greatly pleases the eye.

Mirren is also ably supported by Margaret Tyzack, as the queen’s loyal but misguided old nurse Oenone, and Dominic Cooper (the sexy one in The History Boys, looking even more buff here) as Hippolytus, the object of Phèdre’s unrequited desire. Ruth Negga is lovely as Aricia, the woman Hippolytus really loves and John Shrapnel is immensely moving as a wise counselor who tries to prevent the tragedy. Only Stanley Townsend as Theseus, Phèdre’s husband and Hippolytus’ father, disappoints, acting in the style of a hammy old-fashioned opera star who delivers his arias in a booming baritone and then just simply stands around waiting until the next time he can open his mouth instead of being in the moment with his co-stars.

But what really makes this version of the production so unique is the fact that it is a near simulcast of a live presentation. I say “near” because Thursday night’s performance at the Director’s Guild Theater on West 57th Street, began at 8 PM, which would have made it 1 AM in the morning in London. Still, the show was taped live that evening and we got to see it just hours later.

The NT Live tickets are just $20 and seating is open. A pre-show reception for some broadcast supporters was held in the theater’s downstairs lounge but the house was opened before it finished and the plebians ended up with some of the best seats.

The broadcast began with a 15-minute welcome segment hosted by Jeremy Irons and Hytner talking from the roof deck of the National. Irons appeared nervous, even flubbing a few lines. But that just added to the verisimilitude of the whole thing. Hytner is always marvelously articulate and his comments helped prepare me for the show, as did the brief interviews with some of the actors, although not Mirren. I've read that some people didn't like this set-up but I'm the kind of gal who rents the audiotours for museum shows and watches all the DVD extras when I rent movies from Netflix, so I enjoyed it.

The broadcast did suffer from a few technical glitches that caused the sound to fade out for a few lines here or there. And although the high definition images are beautiful, it can seem a little odd to watch a play on a screen (people weren’t sure whether to applaud or not when the play ended). The broadcast director used multiple cameras to alternate between close-ups and full-range shots but I missed the ability to cast my eye where I wanted it to go. Still, I was grateful to see the show at all. And if you move fast, you may be able to see it too. There will be about a half dozen more broadcasts through July 24, including three in New York. But wherever you are, you can find one near you by clicking here.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

Live in HD broadcasts are FABULOUS! It was a brilliant move on the part of the Met Opera to start doing these. The Royal Opera in London is doing it this week with La Traviata (only not worldwide like the Met). I hope more theatres are encouraged to do this. Since I am seeing Phèdre live in DC, I didn't rush to buy a ticket for this broadcast from London, but I'm thrilled that they've done it. Brava for going and reporting back.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks, Sarah. Knowing that you see everything, I looked around for you at last week's screening. But I should have known that you, unlike yours truly, would have gotten your act together in time to get a ticket for one of the live performances in DC. I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say about it. In the meantime, Live in HD is, as you say, a terrific alternative for folks who can't see a performance in person and, like you, I hope the trend catches on.