Thursday, July 9, 2009

Phedre in New York City - Update

I posted earlier about London's National Theatre experiment of broadcasting plays from their season to theaters in the US. Their first play. "Phedre", by Racine, was shown earlier this month and again last night on the East Side at the City Cinemas. For me, this was a success. I was riveted by the performance of Helen Mirren as Phedre, a queen who has fallen in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, and the carnage that ensues as a result of this passion.

The film opened with Jeremy Irons interviewing director Nicholas Hytner on the terrace of the National Theatre about this project and the four plays that they plan to present. Then we watched designer Bob Crowley explain the concept behind the setting, as well as another man, perhaps the dramaturg? (sorry, can't remember) also offering more valuable pre-show information. I was glad that they kept this short, and presented the play, two hours without intermission (or interval, as they say across the pond) without too much scholarly background. It's such an elemental story that is accessible and quite straightforward; no previous knowledge of Greek Mythology is required in order to enjoy the performance. The translation that they used was by Ted Hughes, and the word imagery was quite beautiful and clearly understandable.

The setting is Ancient and Timeless and textured - a terrace of a palace on the sea, full of angles, textures and heat. There is a sense of air, sea, sky and stone. The cast of 12 play on this one set, during which the light changes gradually and informs much of the play's mood. The costumes, I assume also by Bob Crowley, but supervised by Christine Rowland, with whom I had the pleasure of working on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang here in New York, were a lovely combination of contemporary military (for the men) and timeless elegance. Dame Helen looked sensational: photos are here. Her costumes were simple and elegant, two costumes with additions of a veil and coat in dove grey and plum, with regal jewelry that gradually disappeared as the action unfolded. The clothes were striking without drawing too much attention, quiet and correct. Not seeing the entire set, it's difficult to review it, but there was the sense of oppression from the heavy stone, loss and age from the dead leaves scattered across the stage, and possible escape from it all via the sea and sky. I was happy with most of the performances and the direction, and can't wait for the next chance to see a production from the National in the Fall.

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