Sickness in the royal blood
Helen Mirren sickens in the sunlight, bends double with torment, makes clammy advances to her stepson and scrabbles at herself in remorse. It's quite unlike the starchy home life of our own dear queen, as portrayed in Mirren's previous Oscar-winning performance. But this is a Racine queen - Phèdre, whose toxic desire blights her family in the 1677 French tragedy.
Many have welcomed big-screen opera, live and in high-definition. But theatre is a new development: on Thursday, the National Theatre pioneers an innovative scheme to bring its productions to new audiences, both in Britain and beyond, when its new production of Phèdre is broadcast in over 200 cinemas across the globe.
The National's inaugural productions aren't cosy choices - next up is Shakespeare's problematic fable All's Well That Ends Well. And Racine is a notoriously tough nut to crack for Anglophone theatre. I saw Nicholas Hytner's production at the weekend - not in cinematic close up, admittedly, but certainly up close, as we were goggling from the third row. It's certainly worth a goggle, with some ripe performances and a strong design (set: Bob Crowley; lighting: Paule Constable): a rocky Greek terrace, cut by searing sunlight from which Phèdre cowers in her guilty love.
Mirren, in particular, is great: sardonic notes catch on the iron edge of her voice, while her body appears to be wasting away, as if to tame the heart through sickness.
But I'd also like to hear it for the translation by poet Ted Hughes. First performed in 1998, it has now received a pummelling by critic Michael Coveney, who claims 'You simply don't get the tragic tread of the French alexandrines in a bolshie arrangement of free verse with the odd iambic pentameter thrown in. And there's no formal rhyming, essential to the meaning in Racine, so you're left with a po-faced series of encounters between rather boring people.'
It's true that language is meaning in Racine: the tight verse form mirrors his characters' lack of wriggle room. In Cheek By Jowl's recent Andromaque, for example, the French cast inhabited a cruel geometry that mirrored their situation. Hughes didn't claim to ape the original: he calls his text a 'version', and though it can't reproduce the aural effect of the alexandrines, he makes Phèdre a distinctively pained experience.
This is a play in which desire turns monstrous, curdling relations between stepmother and stepson, father and son, husband and wife. And desire and rage are all interiorised - Racine's protagonists speak to themselves or unload on a hapless confidante (I hope you'll appreciate Margaret Tyzack's magnificent bloodhound features as Phèdre's nurse Oenone: as the queen bangs on about her misbegotten passions, Tyzack looks concerned, mortified and profoundly irritated).
It's true, Hughes makes the tragedy, um, Hughesian - and on its own terms it's a powerful piece of dramatic writing. He truffles for the way emotion turns interior in Phèdre. Unable to find mutual expression, desire feeds on itself, or turns on itself in revulsion, and Hughes richly images that interiorised churn. It's a visceral register: Phèdre wants to empty the blood from her rival's carcass, fears that truth will vomit out of her mouth, feels bloated with her crimes.
See the play as a masterpiece about revulsion as much as desire, and the translation makes perfect sense - culminating in a gory report of an atrocity (delivered with appalled fury by John Shrapnel) that left 'a rag of flesh on every thorn' and feels 'like a great wound through my body.' Hughes returns the body to Racine, locates poisoned passions in the gut and in the blood.
Anyone planning to spend a night with Phèdre? Let me know where you were, and what you thought...
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