Phédre is a Greek tragedy, written by a Frenchman, translated by a Brit, about a character few Americans have ever heard of. And to top it all off, it’s not presented as a live performance but rather broadcast by the National Theatre from the Lyttelton Theatre in London to the Angelika Film Center in Plano and Dallas (and hundreds of movie theaters around the globe).
Sounds exhilarating, no?
In actuality, Ted Hughes’ free-verse translation of Jean Racine’s Alexandrine classic is just as astonishing a piece on screen as it undoubtedly was onstage, and well worth the price of admission.
Phédre, played by Dame Helen Mirren, is in love with her stepson Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper). Hereditary in nature, Phédre is tormented by her unnatural affection and longs for death to free her from the unwanted passion.
However, news arrives that Phedre’s husband, Hippolytus’ father, Theseus (Stanley Townsend), has died. Greece quickly divides into camps, one wishing for Hippolytus to become king, another for Phédre’s young son to be crowned, and a third, which desires the restoration of Aricia (Ruth Negga), who had previously been imprisoned by Theseus.
Aricia, meanwhile, has become the object of Hippolytus’ affection.
Believing Theseus to be dead, both Phédre and Hippolytus take actions previously inhibited by the former king’s presence. Hippolytus confesses his love to and frees Aricia, and Phédre likewise admits her love to Hippolytus.
Unfortunately for both, Theseus is alive, and upon his return everything unravels.
Though a classical Greek story told previously by Euripides and Seneca, Phédre was written by 17th-century French playwright Jean Racine. Considered one of France’s most treasured writers, Racine had a certain proclivity for Greek tragedies, adhering to Aristotle’s strict standards for tragedy while creating stories and characters with which a modern audience could, and still does, identify.
Specifically in Phédre, Racine explores the familiar theme of forbidden love, or more specifically, falling in love with someone you shouldn’t have. Though a common theme that many will easily identify with, Racine set himself apart originally in the combination of the unique Alexandrine style in which he wrote and his creation of painfully realistic characters.
The one problem with Racine’s masterpiece is the same hurdle that prevents most French literature from being read and appreciated by English-speaking audiences. French does not translate to English well. The lyrical Alexandrine verse in which Racine wrote was even less translatable.
A 12-syllable meter grouped into three segments of four syllables and often rhyming at the end, Alexandrine verse was a near-impossible translation English tragedies do not rhyme, and the translations wouldn’t have rhymed anyway. It was a conundrum.
Enter Hughes. More commonly known to Americans as Sylvia Plath’s husband, Hughes served as Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. Actually published after his death, Hughes’ translation of Racine turns Phédre from Alexandrine verse into free verse, solving the riddle of capturing the beauty of Racine’s story, while also making it decipherable in English.
Hughes’ version of Phédre is emotionally raw and haunting, no doubt influenced by a life filled with traumatic love. And while Racine’s original French cannot be captured, Hughes also was a master of language and creates brilliant tapestries with the characters’ words rarely seen in theater today.
In fact, the one complaint about the translation doesn’t lie so much with the words as how they’re spoken. There is something about classical British theater, and British accents in general, that emits an air of properness that can affect the emotionality of a performance. It is in this respect Phédre suffers somewhat. At different times throughout the production, each of the actors lapses into a stiffness not befitting Hughes’ words. For such and emotionally demanding piece, it’s certainly noticeable.
Though Phédre is the title character, she’s hardly the most interesting. Mirren plays the incestuous queen with a schizophrenic turmoil, incessantly howling of her maddening condition and fantasizing of suicide. Hers is a disturbing portrayal of insanity and villainy that will leave the audience shaken.
Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga however, outshine the rest of the cast as Hippolytus and Aricia. Cooper, who is a major up-and-comer in Hollywood, is a building storm throughout the story. His piercing gaze and firm stature create a dominating presence on stage. And eventually, that gathering storm peaks into a violent crescendo of exasperation and rage, leaving the audience aghast at his fate.
Negga’s Aricia is a frail, little girl. But this frailty belies a strong resolve and intense bravery befitting of the noble blood from which she descends. Negga strikes a careful balance between subservience and assertion, creating an incredibly complex young woman worthy of whatever crown might be bestowed upon her.
From the erudite yet accessible script, to Nicholas Hytner’s direction, to Bob Crowley’s simple palace veranda set, Phédre is a masterpiece of modern drama, the likes of which are rarely witnessed these days. However, there is an elephant in the room.
Phédre was actually performed last September…in London. Yes, audiences attending this production will actually be seeing a filmed version of the stage play, which brings its own qualifiers.
The National Theatre used a two-camera setup when filming the show. One camera covered the right side of the stage, the other covered the left. Additionally, the cameras were on jibs, meaning they could move in an out from the stage, rise and fall, travel left to right and vice versa.
What does this mean? What the audience sees at the Angelika will not truly be representative of what the audience at the Lyttelton Theatre saw. Having the performance recorded changes the perspective as watching it on screen, the audience is subject to another level of direction, only seeing what the director wants you to see. It’s an odd amalgamation of theater and film.
Therefore, there are times when a camera will zoom into an actor to add emphasis despite the fact that other actors are still onstage delivering lines. The disembodied voices, seen to the theatre’s audience but unseen to the film audience, change the effect of the production.
The ability of the director to control and limit what the audience sees of the performance creates a different dynamic, altering the audience’s perception and thus skewing the overall affect.
Is it still an excellent performance? Absolutely. But the mediated way in which it is presented should carry a disclaimer. This is not a true representation of the original performance because the audience’s attention is directed, rather than left free to interpretation by seeing the entire stage.
Despite this, Phédre is breathtaking in its execution. As theater, like all other forms of entertainment, seemingly continues to devolve into utter banality, the National Theatre’s production of the Racine/Hughes story shows what theater can still be and why it is important.
True lovers of theater owe it to themselves to search these screenings out. It is faithful restoring. The script is perhaps one of the most effective uses of the English language some will ever hear, the cast is talented and recognizable, and the Angelikas are both surrounded by a bevy of restaurants and bars making, for an enjoyable outing. Phédre serving as the cherry-on-top.
►You can read about the second season of National Theatre Live screenings here.