Just for some Saturday morning hilarity, I must share a review of the production of Phèdre, (with Helen Mirren in the title role and directed by Nicholas Hytner) which I saw on Thursday night at the Cedar Square Cinema Nouveau. I was looking online for the text of Ted Hughes’ translation of what has been called Racine’s greatest work, but found very contradictory reviews of the play itself instead. This one was, however, the most entertaining. It goes…
A world first
Jun 18th 2009
From The Economist print edition
More people are likely to see the National Theatre’s “Phèdre” on June 25th than have ever seen a single live production of a play before
“PHEDRE” is an everyday story of an ancient Greek royal family. A queen, thinking her husband Theseus is dead, reveals her incestuous love for her stepson, Hippolytus, who prefers the love of a young woman. But Theseus returns and Phèdre tries to protect her reputation by suggesting that Hippolytus has raped her.
I laughed a bit, and then thought that I should send the opening paragraph to my Greek husband (I also have an Israeli one but they both live with their first wives) to check on the accuracy of the claim. Is such guile, incest and melodrama common currency in 1) Greek, 2) royal or 3) ancient households? Or is a combination of the three necessary? How common does it have to be before it becomes positively pedestrian? I am surprised that the communications director of the Greek embassy in London did not write a letter to the press.
The site does invite “correction to this article” and I am tempted to just log in and delete “everyday”. Frankly, I am surprised that no-one has done this since the publication of said article more than a month ago.
But to move along. I was looking for the text because I had fallen in love with it. There is something about its rhythm and clarity and unambiguous metaphor that I found completely magical. I might have to order it from somewhere. The text was, I thought, after Helen Mirren who was just wonderful, the best thing about the evening. A rather bitter, if well-versed fellow called Michael Coveney dismisses Hughes’ translation for deviating from Racine’s alexandrines (lines of French verse consisting of 12 syllables with a caesura usually falling after the sixth syllable) to:
“a bolshie arrangement of free verse with the odd iambic pentameter thrown in… [that] plays for two uninterrupted hours and feels like something devised for tourists sampling culture on the South Bank. It has nothing much to do with Racine. Ted Hughes’s supple text is a fair stab, but a wrong one.”
I think he is very rude, especially about Helen Mirren, who he said was “the ultimate page three girl, … a randy old ray, even if she looks more like a Nordic Brunhilde in her flaxen wig.” Gorgeous Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus, on the other hand, he thought was “very good”. Actually, although Dominic is just a peach on the eyes, he was rather concerned with his tight little black vest and how to display his ripped, taut frame and chiseled shoulders for the audience. The broody melancholy combined with the cocked hip just did not work for me, even as it may have for Mr Conveney.
Conveny lavished cautious praise on all the actors, actually, saying that “everyone is good” and that the text was the thing that sank them. Nonsense. John Shrapnel’s affected effort to convey the news of Hippolytus’ bloody death was just too mired in the gory details to be believed. He is not a good actor, not even on TV. And Stanley Townsend as Theseus, the figuratively cuckold husband and idiot father, looked bored, frankly, as if the others really were going on a bit and he was impatient for his turn to speak.
The text is not, unlucky for him, an exercise in scintillating dialogue. Instead, it is constructed of a sequence of dramatic speeches which can be difficult to access for a modern audience (moi) unfamiliar with the rhyming alexan-friggen-drines. And why should said audience be either familiar or subjected to such archaic verse?
On June 25, the production was broadcast live by satellite to 68 cinema screens in Britain and 20 more in Europe. After a five-hour time delay, it was also shown on 33 screens in the US. An estimated audience of 30 000 people all saw the play at the same time. Talk of mass production of theatre. Just from the supercilious pain-in-the-ass tone of his review, I guess that any version approved by Mr Conveney would not have had such great appeal. As an act of theatre, Phèdre was a profound and moving experience. And now, I have to find the text.
I have never read anything by Racine, in spite of the fact that I have had a yellowed and scuffed Penguin Classic translation of Iphigenia/Phaedra/Athaliah on my shelf for at least 15 years. Having been what Italo Calvino called a book “That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered” and certainly, a Book That I Have Forgotten I Had On The Shelf At All, it will now become a Book That I Cannot Read As There Is A Better Translation That I Have Fallen In Love With.
And now, to breakfast, and then, to work. I think the day’s temperature has finally pushed the mercury to that place where one can get out of bed.