Last night the National Theater of London broadcast its first “NT Live” transmission to select theater screens around the world, and it choose as it’s first production a stunning reworking of Racine’s “Phèdre” Starring Helen Mirren. What a great play to kick off their “experiment.” This is a French play written in the 1670’s that takes place in ancient Greece and packs as much emotion (i.e., acting) into a two-hour time frame as is possible. It has a loved-crazed woman, a lopsided love quadrangles, swords, blood, and death. This was a live performance, and if you couldn’t make it to London to sit in that audience, National Theater’s NT Live expanded it's idea of what an audience is and let people in a lot of countries experience the same thing.
Helen Mirren plays Phèdre, the queen (granddaughter of Zeus!), but this is as opposite a queen as you can get from her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the film “Queen.” Consumed by love for her stepson Hippolytus (who just happens to be “the best of all men”), she practically goes mad with it. When her husband Theseus (yes, the one who slew the Minotaur) is declared dead after a six month absence, Phèdre feels that she can declare her love to Hippolytus without impugning her honor or that of the king’s. All Hades breaks loose when Theseus arrives back home (something about being stuck in a pit “that stank of the underworld”) and Phèdre's maid accuses Hippolytus of incest with the queen, the old “accuse before being accused” ploy, which of course never works.
People fling themselves off balconies to be dashed to death on the rocks below, others are trampled by bolting horses, and of course (for this kind of play) take poison and keel right over dead. Corpses in bags get dragged across the stage leaving a trail of blood from back to front. Very powerful acting, going from madness to insanity to grief in a minute, and heartbreaking descriptions of the death of loved ones; it was mesmerizing.
This is a play that is not modern in its sensibilities; the American audience chortled in some places, and if there was ever a woman who “doth protest too much” it was Phèdre; honestly woman, wouldja get over it already? You’re like a lovesick teenager mooning over the captain of the swim team. But that is kind of the point, that that kind of crazed emotion has serious (and deadly) repercussions in the adult world.
I saw “Phèdre” at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, because it was not playing in metropolitan Boston, and tickets were $27.50 at the door. Perhaps because we only have the BSO, the MFA, and possibly the largest congregation of colleges and universities in the world Boston isn’t cultured enough for one theater to participate, but I am glad (glad!) that I drove approximately 60 miles to another state to see one of the finest actresses working today in a live performance of a very tough play. This is something I wouldn’t’ve missed for the world.
NT Live will be broadcasting “All’s Well that End’s Well” in October. Put it on your calendars. [Permalink] - NT Live