Sunday, October 4, 2009

PHAEDRE review


You just don’t see theater like this anymore, at least not in the good ol’ USA. We’re talking the present London production of Jean Racine’s Greek tragedy “Phaedra” by England’s own National Theatre. Helen Mirren has the title role, though every cast member is called on to do significant amounts of heavy lifting. The performance was filmed last month in London before a live audience.

The play has scarcely begun -- establishing a level of intensity never seen in modern pictures, magnified by camera close-ups at the most telling moments -- when we realize how severely Hollywood’s dependence on digital special effects has deprived audiences of appreciating a full display of raw human emotions.

“Phaedra” projects a torque-jawed realm of drama powered by such a muscular mental connection the visceral response is immediate. These acting talents are so much larger than life – their dialogue the brute force equivalent of broad swords and sabers hacking and slashing at each other. Lusty appetites on a mythic scale.

Appreciating this kind of performance does require a different sensibility, a willingness to follow every actor over the top and straight down into dark twists of writhing personalities conveyed in pure animalistic frenzy. By today’s fey television talk show standards, this is strong drink indeed.

Stripped of subtlety, rushing headlong into vein-popping expressions of conflict, the psychology of revenge feels cut from bulky blocks of granite compulsively banging away.

As a theatrical experience, it falls somewhere between watching a movie and watching a play. The camera edits are unobtrusive, as logic dictates when long shots go zooming into uptight confrontations. We are led by the director, of course, but none of it feels forced.

The stage set is startling simplicity conveying a Greek palace as well as rocky countryside set against a clear blue Mediterranean sky. Costumes for the men hint at modern military uniforms. The women have more classic Grecian gowns.

While the plot is never the point but more of an excuse for the characters to bludgeon each other with words, “Phaedra” does remind us “when passion boils, reason evaporates.”

The language, translated by England’s renowned Ted Hughes, is not contemporary but it is direct. Unlike Shakespeare, there is no adjustment required to get into the rhythm of the conversation.

Phaedra lusts after her own stepson, Hippolytus, who feels intimidated by his father Theseus, who is believed to have died while adventuring in another country.

No sooner has Phaedra confessed her sexual desires for Hippolytus then they learn Theseus has come home. Quickly, Phaedra claims Hippolytus raped her. Theseus believes her story instead of his own son’s denial. Blood will be spilled before this is over.


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