Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mirren triumphs in Phèdre

Every now and then, you can feel the future cracking open before you on stage. Or on screen. Or on both. At any rate, I had that feeling this weekend, when I took in the National Theatre's cinema broadcast of Racine's Phèdre, starring the great Helen Mirren (above, with Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus), at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. I was already a fan of the Met broadcasts (next up at Fenway: The Barber of Seville and the Julie Taymor Magic Flute), but I still wondered if the National Theatre would be able to pull off quite the same trick with a 'straight play,' particularly one as obscure and (potentially) static as Phèdre.

I shouldn't have worried. The theatre was packed (at $20 a seat), the crowd no doubt pulled in my Mirren's marquee name rather than the play - but the audience (generally graying, like the live theatre's) sat spellbound throughout the presentation. The broadcast looked radiant, at the same quality level as the Met's; the sound was clean, the camerawork unobtrusive, yet involving. And it was hard to shake the feeling that these broadcasts do constitute a new form of electronic theatre - one which does not shape material as willfully and completely as a film does, but instead uses the techniques of film to subtly track the attention and focus of a live audience, while somehow making theatre feel titanic (even as movies seem to be getting smaller and smaller). Stranger still, these transmissions do feel "live," or at worst "mediated live" - which is still a helluva lot better than canned (the sense of continuity and build that one senses in forceful live performance, but rarely in film, was palpable in Mirren). The National already has a full season of broadcasts planned - and my guess is that soon the Royal Shakespeare Company and others will be following suit - and a new standard for classical theatre will suddenly be unavoidable in America.

That is, if the broadcasts are all of the same quality as Nicholas Hytner's fluid, insightful Phèdre (from a muscular, if not particularly elegant, translation by the late Ted Hughes). Bob Crowley's stunning set - a balcony cut into a Greek cliff, burning with shafts of brilliant sun, and pierced by a single, perversely twisted shaft of stone - was probably worth the price of admission alone (see above). And then there was Mirren, whose first, desperately shrouded appearance sent a palpable thrill through the theatre, and who gave a full-throttle grande-dame performance throughout, in utter command of the text yet somehow unleashed physically in a way you rarely see American actors pull off. No one else in the cast, it's true, was quite in her league. But the redoubtable Margaret Tyzack proved sympathetic and astute as the meddling Oenone, even if she didn't fully convey the secret love that drives this character (as it drives all the characters); likewise Stanley Townsend made a suitably imposing Theseus, but didn't pull off the character's Lear-like disintegration in the final scene. Meanwhile the younger cast was competent and sexy, but slightly lightweight (like their costumes, which tended toward the skimpily chic).

Every time Mirren entered, however, I felt my heart skip a beat, and all this was as nothing. Could Phèdre count as the best classical production "seen" in Boston this year? Yes, rather obviously. Those who missed it are advised to pray for a re-broadcast (but catch it in a theatre, with other people, not on TV). Meanwhile, those of us who caught it are already looking forward to the National's next effort, All's Well that Ends Well on October 1 (also at the Coolidge Corner).

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