As a species I don’t think we’ve evolved much. The Beast and the Angel live in all of us, as they ever have, as they ever will. There will always be selfishness, greed, dishonesty, jealousy, betrayal, violence, hatred. But at the opposite end of humanity’s scales are beauty and wonder, both of which I encountered, contrary to all expectations, at the Luna Cinema, Leederville, a couple of Sunday afternoons ago.
I was not anticipating a transcendent experience. In fact, I was dubious about getting much more than a yawn out of this early afternoon screening of a Royal National Theatre production of Racine’s Phèdre. I didn’t know the play, but it sounded highbrow and dull. I’d heard of Racine, knew he was a 17th century French playwright filed under large “L” literature, and assumed from the play’s title that it alluded to Greek mythology. Great. Was it for this that I was to miss the first half of the direct telecast of the footy? So what if the cast included some of the NT’s finest, including Helen Mirren? The notion of filming a stage play simply did not excite me. The point of live theatre is that it’s live, surely?
Well, this was - sort of. A little background is in order here. This screening of Phèdre is the first in a series of initiatives by London’s National Theatre, branded “NT Live”, whereby it is planned to transmit four plays around the world live from the stage, in real time (the Australian screenings were delayed for some reason, probably technological). The NT has always sought to include the masses in their productions via half-price tickets and generous student concessions, of which I was a grateful beneficiary on multiple occasions as a backpacker in England in the 80s. High-definition cameras and satellite feeds have now rendered the NT’s egalitarian approach applicable on a scale never dreamt of until very recently.
Admirable, yes, and exciting as a proposition, but would it work? Real-time performance is only part of the equation. Isn’t the theatre experience tied to locale? The performance space of a stage and the audience environment of live theatre cannot be displaced to a mere movie theatre, surely? You know, Marshall McLuhan’s “the media is the message” and all that …
Besides, stageplays are necessarily wordy, much of the action being communicated in text rather than image. The theatrical form is ill-suited to a cinema setting. And Racine’s Phèdre, if it was anything like the plays of Shakespeare, would be full of long speeches and references to Greek mythology. How’s that going to work on today’s CGI-saturated, action-addicted, short-attention-spanned, classically-uneducated movie-goers? Huh? HUH?
Well I’ll tell ya how it worked - BRILLIANTLY. The Luna in downtown Leedy is a long, long way from the Lyttelton Theatre on London’s South Bank, where Phèdre was being staged, but I’m damned if I didn’t feel like I was in the London audience. Dismiss that as fanciful if you like - but I swear this is how it was for me. And delayed transmission or not, the real-time illusion was part of the wonder of this experience. Why? Because the sense of occasion you get from a theatre outing was preserved in full. It was a packed house, which enhanced the atmosphere, but the definitive point was that we, the audience, were there to witness an event that was not replicable. This was a performance, not a recording that could be replayed at another time, in another place - the National Theatre is not releasing a DVD.
And the play! Racine - what crime of culture is this, that I have known nothing of you until now? Phèdre is by far the best doomed-love tragedy I have encountered. It is full of dark turbulent emotion, of the raging fever of lust and love unrequited, of towering passions that damn or redeem, that have the power to take or give life, or fundamentally alter it forever for those who flounder helpless in its throes.
I feel bound to declare the most famous example of the tragedy genre, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a limp squib of a work next to Phèdre. I should confess here that, Hamlet and my all-time favourite character Falstaff aside, I’m not huge on Shakespeare generally, and have always found Romeo and Juliet tedious. I’ve seen several movie versions and two or three theatre productions, and none have succeeded in moving me - all have produced a stifled yawn or three. But Phèdre … good God, what an emotional and psychological powerhouse of a work! And how astonishingly modern. Certainly, it adheres to the traditions of the classic tragedy (strewth, it even has an Oedipal theme at its core), but it is far more - this is a dark psychodrama of the highest order.
While the characters’ metaphysical reference points derive from ancient Greek mythology, they are forged out of searing, complex and utterly recognisable psychological truths. Pop-psychology practitioners could impress themselves no end analysing Racine’s characters in terms of limiting modern concepts such as projection, transference, martyrdom and narcissism. Indeed, so steeped are we in these sorts of understandings of human interaction today, it is difficult not to draw on them to some extent. But this reduces the virtuosity of Racine to something trite. There is paradox aplenty in his characters, as there is in all people - paradox that sneers at the sorts of simplistic categorisations implied by the terminology of contemporary psychology. Far better to simply give yourself into the hands of this master and go where he and his characters take you.
Helen Mirren plays the title role of Phèdre, queen of Athens. Of course, her presence is a promotional coup, and she gives a fine performance, but I found her voice slightly grating and her acting a tad “theatrical”. I thought she was outshone by veteran Margaret Tyzack as her wily nurse Oenone, manipulative and devious, yet loyal to her mistress unto death. And Stanley Townsend fed such massive energy into his character of Theseus that he verged on frightening at times. All the acting was superb, though.
The set, a stark palace verandah of marble with the sea as backdrop, was stunning, and remained in place throughout. There was no attempt, incidentally, to replicate a movie experience. Five cameras were used in real-time – much like in a direct sports broadcast (but without replays!). The task of the cameraman here was to capture the performances without intruding on them.
But enough of detail and hyperbole. This is not a review as such, which would serve little purpose - if you were not part of the packed cinema audiences throughout Australia a couple of weekends ago you’ve missed out for now. Take note, however, there are three more plays to be beamed live by the NT in the near future. If you have the opportunity to attend any of these screenings, DO NOT HESITATE. This is an experience to treasure, a triumph of technology and art. Just as rap and hiphop breathed vibrant street life back into the academically cloistered (and therefore comatose) poetry genre, this spectacularly successful NT experiment might just change the face and fate of theatre in the 21st century. Viva la revolution! And viva Racine!