Eastside Road, Healdsburg, June 25, 2009—NEARLY THREE YEARS AGO I wrote here about a production of Jean Racine's magnificent tragedy Phèdre, which we'd just seen in Glendale, performed by the repertory company A Noise Within. Tonight we saw a very different edition, a performance by London's National Theatre, filmed for "live" broadcast into cinemas. (In fact it was billed as "live capture": the actual performance was given in London earlier today.)
This was a very different take on the play, using a rather talky, prose translation by Ted Hughes where NW had given it in Richard Wilbur's remarkable poetic translation, more faithful to Racine's French I think and certainly more evocative. Leaving aside for the moment the differences between live theater in a house and filmed theater on a screen, the NT production seemed not Greek or French but English; not fateful but relentless; not tragic but dramatic.
It is a favorite play of mine: but it is disgusting. Disgusting not so much because of its subject, incest, but because of its vehicle, maniacal obsession. Disgusting and extremely troubling, because Racine doubles the stark immediacy inherent in the original Euripides tragedy. This play is about the extent to which our human lives can be overtaken by the emotions we're all prey to. Euripides was arguably among the first generations of humans consciously aware of these matters, not merely existentially inflamed by them. If Myth has among its sources and utilities the explanation of perplexing phenomena, Greek tragedy is the poetic elevation of Myth, through individual creative (and intuitive) genius.
Euripides was First Generation, you might say. (Well, Aeschylus was a little ahead of him.) His tragedy Hippolytus, which I confess I don't know, is about the title character's unnatural commitment to chastity; his stepmother Phaedra plays a relatively small role in the action, if not in the subject of the play. Racine's version reverses this authorial position, fixing on Phedre's obsession as the real center of the tragedy.
You can argue that the central theme of the Greek mythology as we know it is concerned with reproduction, with the urge and the need of individuals to obey a natural commandment to reproduce the species. The issue is issue, you might say; the individual will to defeat death by living on in subsequent generations; and in the case of the excessively egomaniacal (as we would say today) the drive extends not only progressively, into the future, but also laterally, spilling beyond the confines of the individual to assert dominion within all of society.
At the time of Pericles this drive was being examined primarily as it involves a social (and, inescapably, historical) context, beginning tribally, then moving into a more complex and codified political structure. To attend to the Theseus story-line is to study uneasy neighbor kingdoms: Troezen, Crete, Athens. By Racine's time the political implications cannot be questioned outright; Racine's king, Louis XIV, was divinely ordained. (Phedre's grandfather was the Sun; Louis XIV was the Sun King.) Racine examines the Theseus-Phaedra-Hippolytus story from the point of view of individual obsession, not familial succession.
Racine's play squarely mediates, I think, between an almost archaic classicism, fully aware and respectful of his ancient Greek sources, and the incipient romanticism of his own day, a century before the French Revolution. We don't yet see, in Racine's play, the possible sources and resolutions of Phedre's severe psychological disturbance, but we are continually assaulted by its presence. And in this Racine puts his audience squarely within his heroine's quandary: in good hands — translation, direction, and acting — we are inevitably thrust into identification with her.
This is Racine's violation of Aristotle's outline of tragedy: identifying with Phedre, we find no catharsis. We don't leave the play purged of tragic flaw; we leave still reeling from the injustice (to use a pathetic term) of the tragic situation inevitably accompanying Phedre's obsession. The Greeks of Phaedra's day were right, in a sense, to give up the attempt to understand these things, whose sources were simply attributed to willful and inherently ineffable natural urges, tides one might say, personified as Aphrodite or Poseidon or Zeus.
All this said, what of the National Theatre production?
I came away of two minds — three, actually. As to acting, direction, and physical production, with one important reservation, I was quite persuaded. Helen Mirren is a remarkable Phedre, somehow (partly perhaps through Nicholas Hytner's direction), bringing Racine's tragic heroine somehow closer to one of Ingmar Bergman's. I wasn't quite so persuaded by Margaret Tyzack's performance as Phedre's nurse, Oenone; there was something a little too automatic in it, too much residue of Juliet's nurse, let's say. Dominic Cooper managed to personify the young, strong, proud Hippolytus, especially as bewildered by the first pangs of love; and Ruth Negga was his equal as Aricia: this was a beautifully balanced pair of tragic young lovers; one wants to see their Romeo and Juliet.
John Shrapnel played Theramene; he should have been cast as Theseus. He was complex, interesting, subtle, as remarkable in his silences as in his lines. Stanley Townsend, who did play Theseus, seemed to me all bluster and boredom by comparison. But with his single exception the cast rallied to what may have been an exceptional challenge, playing simultaneously to the 900-seat National Theater and to the cameras and microphones bringing them much larger than life to the international closed-circuit audiences.
In the end, I don't think I saw legitimate theater. The performance may have been real-time, but on the screen, whether in close-up or depicted on the full stage, the look of the characters is flat. Further, there's a confused sense of audience: you're aware of the live theater audience, but much more aware of the real people around you in the cinema. Worse yet, you're aware the actors are completely unaware of you: you're eavesdropping on a theatrical dialogue between actors and their own, real audience, more privileged because actually present before the stage.
(This quality is exacerbated by certain sonic problems: the microphones drop away when charactes turn their backs; and the actors' suppression of sibilants, especially final sibilants, occasionally produces a curious lisp probably unnoticed by the live audience. "Theseuth," one hears, too often.)
Worst of all, to my mind, was the effect of Ted Hughes's free-verse translation. It had two negative results: bringing the vocabulary and vocal expression to an informal (though relatively heightened) contemporary context, it simplified and even trivialized Racine's intent, sometimes producing inappropriate laughter in the audience.
It also made the production uniquely British. The English language is now universal, and in our time if Greek or French is to be translated into English it seems to me the reason should be to render it accessible internationally. I suppose you could argue that Racine frenchifies Euripides, but I don't believe it: and to the extent that he does, he does in order to point out the parallels and dissonances between the Greek and French contexts of his story. Hughes seems simply to make a naturalized British subject of his Phedre, though he retains the French spelling of her name — minus, in more ways than one, her accent grave.