Review – Phedre – National Theatre


Tonight was my birthday treat to my friend Cate, a trip to the National to see Phedre. I didn’t know much about it (I love it when the first viewing of a show is a complete surprise, though I seemed to remember a bit of the plot) and had mostly purchased tickets on two points: first, that this was the play mentioned by Proust over and over in In Search of Lost Time, and, second, for some reason the National was restricting ticket purchases to four seats per person. Fine, then, it must be something special, or so I reasoned – possibly the fact that Helen Mirrim is playing the lead role. So I got seats long before the show opened – and for a preview performance, natch! (NOTE: It’s been pointed out that I spelled her name wrong. Oops. I’ll correct it for the rest of the review but I feel I need to leave it as stands to support the criticism.)

As we approached the theater, such good luck! Who was on the astroturf sipping a French red but Andrew and Phil of the WestEnd Whingers! Phil attempted to point out what they called “real celebrities” to me (some Dame Shawn somebody and someone from an American sitcom I never watched, details on their review), but it couldn’t distract me from the fact I had two of the funniest guys in London sitting around and shooting the breeze with me. It was really a good start to the show.

After which … well, if you’ve never seen a Greek drama, you should know there is a kind of formula they follow. A proud character announces that he is going to go against the will of the gods, and, once he leaves the stage, a messenger appears and tells you that he’s met a terrible fate pretty much before he reached the wings. It’s rather like working at a start-up web company, really, listening to people talk about how rich they’re going to be or the CEO promising what a success his unresearched product will be once it hits the market “and is properly monetized.” Phedre actually has two ridiculously proud characters (Theseus – Stanley Townsend – and his son Hippolytus – Dominic Cooper), and two characters with heavily conflicting emotions (Phedre and Hippolytus) requiring them to go against the will of the gods. All of the “action” takes place off stage, and there is (as is usual) no intermission (leading to a two hour running time, which meant no pre-show wine with Phil and Andrew).

I think a lot of your ability to enjoy Phedre will depend on how you like this formula. I remembered partway through the show that the last time I saw one of these plays, even the presence of Alan Cumming half naked could not save the evening for me. Consider yourself warned; God knows I found myself wishing I had remembered this earlier.

While there are certain problems with Greek drama in general that afflict this play, Helen Mirren has the disadvantage of representing her incestuous step mother as just too old to be convincing as a person that Hippolytus might ever consider, making all of her mewling utterly unresonant. (A Mrs. Robinson would have actually been a contender as someone with enough juice to make a lusty spring/autumn fling a possibility). Furthermore, even though her character is supposed to be mentally unbalanced, Mirren herself was having a hard time riding the line between hysteria and calculation, especially at the balancing point that would have caused me, as an audience member, to be truly sympathetic to her plight. I didn’t feel sorry for her and she didn’t seem to have a grip on the impossibility of what she wanted even if there were no husband in the way – how could I get involved in her emotions enough for this to resonate as a tragedy? I’m hoping that after the show has a bit of time to settle down she’ll draw back the performance to the right level to pull the audience in, to make them care more about Phedre (and less about “Ooh, it’s Helen Mirren on stage” looking very much like herself). Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Hippolytus is arrogant but almost immediately brought into human scale by his love of Aricia (Ruth Negga, pretty and strong); but his blustering father is utterly unsympathetic as the “I shall curse thee immediately for pissing me off” king. (It’s required for the plot, but when you see someone acting so quickly without thought, you kind of want them smacked down a bit.) That meant of the three leads, only the son was sympathetic, despite initially being a prig. He is truly an innocent in this drama, but is also, I think, the more compelling of the three actors, hitting a good middle ground between GLOOM and DOOM and just being flat. At any rate, I didn’t find him painful, which is hardly an overwhelming thumbs up but, well, it was a bit hard at times to notice him while the people around him were tirading.

Brilliant in the midst of all of these histrionics is Theramene (John Shrapnel), the messenger who comes in to tell of Hippolytus’s death. His outrageous tale of a wave that becomes a sea monster that doesn’t kill Hippolytus but instead leaves him free to be dragged to death by his horses (a tale so drawn out I was sure it was providing cover for Hippolytus to actually get off of the island) reallly came to life, finally providing a sharp moment for all of Ted Hughes’ glorious verbiage (especially alliteration). Sadly it was brought down almost immediately by Theseus, who fell to his knees and said, in stentorian tones worthy of the Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen, “My son!” (Later Aricia drags his bleeding, bagged body onto stage for the final scene, and when the curtain open for bows, my comment was, “My, he sure did get out of that bag quickly!” But, you see, we were all in need of some laughs at that point.)

My companions said: “It was painful, but I’m glad I got through it – kind of like a mammogram.”
And: “Phedre – is that Greek for ‘house full of nutters’?”

Afterwards we sat down and actually had some wine, and it was very pleasant. Soon, the experience will fade from all of our minds, though hopefully I’ll remember that I really just don’t enjoy Greek drama and shouldn’t go, no matter how much Proust has written about the play in question.

(This review is for a preview performance seen on June 8th, 2009. Phedre continues at the National through August 27th.)

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13 Responses to “Review – Phedre – National Theatre”

  1. Exit, pursued by a bear Says:

    MirREN, Helen Mirren, DAME Helen MIRREN!

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I guess there’s nothing like a dame … unless you’re checked out of celebrity culture like I am. I mean, geez, she’s just the hired help for this show anyway!

  2. makingplans4nigel Says:

    blimey, could this be the year that two dames wished they’d stuck to the silver screen?

  3. Andrew (a west end whinger) Says:

    You’re just embarrassing yourself with your “Dame Shawn somebody” business.

    People: we were in the presence of DAME EILEEN ATKINS and SIAN PHILLIPS CBE.

  4. Kate Mura Says:

    I think that if you had been able to see Diana Rigg’s Medea on Broadway or the West End back in the 90’s, you might have a different feeling towards Greek drama. To this day it’s one of the best theatre experiences of my life and FAST! Typically I completely agree with you, Greek drama is very lugubrious, but somehow Medea was done at such a clip, I couldn’t believe when it was over and 2 hours had passed.

  5. Paulie K Says:

    Just like Hippolytus’ body at the end- it didn’t half drag on.

    Did you hear the gentlemen in the circle curse the coughers?

  6. Exit, pursued by a bear Says:

    The National Theatre kindly provide free cast lists in little plastic boxes hanging on the walls, as I believe do many major theatres. These are extremely useful for review writers too hard up (or tight) to buy a programme as they give the correct spelling of all the names of the people n the cast.

    “Dame Shawn someone” – sheesh! Imagine the whoohaa if someone mentioned “Dustbin Hauffman” or “Tam Cruiseliner”

    • webcowgirl Says:

      *giggle* Actually, it’s more like if someone said “Sir Ben” something, who knows what Sir Ben they were talking about? And this Sian person wasn’t in the show, so even though I forked out for a program, how was I supposed to know who “Shawn” was? Sadly, I thought I got Ms. Mirrim’s name right, as I’ve actually heard it said before, so I didn’t check. Really, you can’t win for losing, especially if you’re trying to type up a review on a tiny computer on your train ride home.

      The thing is, I really don’t go for the cult of celebrity, and official endorsement by the crown or not, these are still just celebrities. I’m far more interested in scripts and playwrights, and apparently waving my ignorance around, because no matter what I get wrong, there will be someone to say it’s just sure sign I shouldn’t be writing at all. I propose instead that they write, or do me the favor/insult of not reading, but it’s apparently much more fun to point out where you know more than someone else (transient feeling of superiority or something).

      My goal is to convey the experience of a performance, and it matters little to me who is on stage providing they are good.

  7. michael sharpe Says:

    Never read her before,so why do I get the feeling that this brash/naive person is an American?

  8. Nigel Says:

    I enjoyed the review. Thanks. Especially thanks as I was wondering whether to make the effort to see it at my not-very-local cinema at a not-very-convenient time.

  9. Review – Ghosts – Arcola Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] for three acts with no interval, meaning roughly a two hour running time. But unlike the overblown Phedre, Ghosts blazed along from start to finish with barely a pause to catch its breath. It was like a […]

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