Review: Phedre

July 3, 2009
Helen Mirren as Phedre

Helen Mirren as Phedre

It’s not often that I will clap my hands together for a performance and truly mean it. A full hearted clapping where I hope that along with everyone else clapping we can truly give our praise to a performance.

From the moment the safety curtain parted, revealing the brightly lit stage I was captivated. Completely enthralled on so many different layers leading Nicholas Hytner’s Phedre starring the wonderful Helen Mirren as a hit, for me at least.

Bob Crowley’s scenery must be mentioned first, a vast dominating stone chamber reminiscent of Ancient Greek [handy that..!] covers the Lyttelton’s stage, coupled with the cyclorama it causes the actors to seem like tiny mortals against this god like structure. There are no scene changes, for there is no need for any, and I’m grateful that the beautiful set is kept in one piece.

Lighting is often not mentioned in reviews, but it has to be when discussing this production of Phedre. Paule Constanble does a fantastic job at manipulating the light upon Crowley’s set to produce the hot atmospheric nature of what Greek plays should hold. During some moments the boundaries between the open expanse of light becomes a character within itself when numerous characters of the play shrivel from the ‘sun light’ or bask in its glory. The lighting is just superb that compliments the whole piece flawlessly.

Mirren is Tragically Beautiful

Mirren is Tragically Beautiful

Moving onto Helen Mirren. Well what can be said? Her portrayal of the fragile character of Phedre shifts between madness, desperation and hope within a flicker of eyelid. Mirren is outstanding. She captures the essence of a Queen lost in a tide of incestuous thoughts and desires. Phedre betrays the scared bond of marriage through lusting over her step-son, and Mirren does so with such ease it was as if the part was destined for her. Mirren’s ability to show a fragile aging woman is beautifully tragic. She immerses herself into the role and truly depicts everything that theatre is about – this living, breathing theatrical moment.

Margaret Tyzack as Oenone is a perfect piece of casting to play opposite Mirren. Tyzacks has the ability to create the balance between Mirrens’ madness and obsessions to the love and support she needs, and craves. What is remarkable is the way in which Tyzack uses her hands in the duration of the performance. From clasping at the chairs positioned on stage to the covering of her face repeatedly. It is these simple directions that became captivating to watch.

Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus plays a strong part in being the handsome step-son, and whilst he fits the part of this ‘stunning’ chracter, he offers little else. This isn’t a negative point, he merely fits the role for the part. Equally Hoppolytus lover Aricia played by Ruth Negga creates a sound performance, where her beauty seems to radiate under the lights at the National.

On the matter of sound – this is either a love or hate when it comes to this production. Adam Cork’s use of music and sound is completely captivating for me. He manages to punctuate the dramatic action perfectly with booming resonance during the climax of the piece itself. Some people will find it intruding, but for me it only goes to push the emphasis of the tragedy upon the looming deaths of the characters.

On a different note: This blog is aimed at the Younger Critic/Theatre Goers view point, and I was so quick to say “We want more younger people out there”… but sitting in the theatre last night, I was watching a generation of actors whose disciplines run deep and routed in a style of acting that not many younger actors find today.

Mirren and Tyzack are of a breed of actors that I crave to see more often.

So whilst I will talk until I am blue in the face about the need for a young generation in theatre’s, I can’t recall the last time I was so blown away by a performance – especially not by an ‘older actor’.

The striking set and lighting against Mirren and Cooper

The striking set and lighting against Mirren and Cooper

Phedre has to be one of the best productions I’ve seen this year. Whilst I am bold enough to announce this, I realise that not everyone will be quick to agree. There is only so much desperation and strained voices discussing Gods, Love and Incest that an audience member can take – but maybe I am weak for a good piece of text, where Ted Hughes translation is just beautiful.

Conclusion: Dramatically beautiful. Captivating and appealing. 2 hours passed by with such ease that I was left hanging on my seat for more.

Bravo Mirren.

Phedre is running at the National Theatre until the 27th August.

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