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Helen Mirren kicks off NT Live with 'Phedre'

June 26, 2009 |  3:15 pm


NT Live had its Los Angeles kickoff on Thursday at Mann Chinese 6 Theatre, Hollywood, with a screening of the National Theatre production of "Phèdre." The staging was directed by Nicholas Hytner and starred Helen Mirren in the title role, Dominic Cooper ("The History Boys") as hunky Hippolytus and Margaret Tyzack as Phèdre's nurse and romantic enabler, Oenone. 

Racine's tragedy is such a rarefied animal that it's not easy to judge the prospects of this series of broadcast offerings from one of London's theatrical mainstays. But common sense assures me that, however long it lasts, it will be a nice globalized supplement to our theater culture, never a substitute for the real deal.

The broadcast started with pre-show coverage of people mingling outside the National and audience members rustling with anticipation in their seats. Given that fewer people are jetting off to Europe for vacation these days, the images provided a pleasant touristy taste of London summer. 

Dominic-Cooper-and-Helen-Mi A casually attired Jeremy Irons delivered a jittery greeting before posing seemingly off-the-cuff questions to Hytner, who in addition to directing the production is the artistic director of the National. Irons inquired whether the actors would be acting for the audience or the camera. Hytner explained that though they would be acting for the spectators in front of them, the multi-camera crew would be able to offer far-away audiences a fair sense of the experience. 

The camerawork, however, got off to a shaky start. It was particularly jumpy in Mirren's first scene when close-ups were liberally employed. The impulse to capture every shadow of romantic agony on the face of the production's luminous star is understandable. But "Phèdre" is a play that treasures distance more than intimacy, and stable views that would have permitted us to regard the protagonist in shifting tableaux would have been more consonant with the playwright's style. 

As Hytner's production grew increasingly assured in the second half (Mirren does ferocity better than frailty) and we became more acclimated to this admittedly awkward hybrid of film and theater, it was easier to appreciate Racine's stark tragedy, which seems to go out of its way to freeze out our contemporary need for warmth. 

This revival also stays stubbornly true to Neoclassical decorum in its reluctance to mix comedy with pity and terror. You could hear the movie audience resourcefully maximizing any vestiges of humor from the reliably witty Mirren. (I kept wishing Hytner would throw us a few anachronistic bones of levity.)   

Visually, the picture could hardly be sharper. Bob Crowley's Grecian set seemed almost palpably stony, and the sky was so cerulean it lured one to gaze dreamily upward.  

In terms of the physical experience, the cinema's roomy seats with ample leg-room were a distinct advantage -- it was as though we at the Mann were flying business while playgoers at the National were stuck in coach. The volume seemed a touch too loud throughout and there were a couple of garbled transmission moments, but for an inaugural run it went smoothly. 

What sums up the experience best perhaps is the curtain call, which had half the movie audience clapping, the other half collecting their candy wrappers and soda cups. Those who were expressing their gratitude to the performers with their hands seemed slightly shy about it while those who weren't looked either guilty for not or judgmental of their companions for failing to recognize that the artists couldn't hear them.

Peculiar and enriching, this first NT Live offering wasn't a home run. The beauty of "Phèdre" resides not just in its story but in the way Racine's verse (muscularly translated by Ted Hughes)  releases arpeggios in the air. Nothing can replace being there.

But how wonderful that we had the option of viewing, even at a Platonic remove, this contemporary confrontation with antique austerity. Next up in the NT Live series is Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well" on Oct. 1, followed by Alan Bennett's new play "The Habit of Art" in 2010.  If they're locally screened (plans aren't yet firm), I'll see you at the movies. 

-- Charles McNulty   

Photo: Top: Helen Mirren. Bottom: Dominic Cooper and Helen Mirren. Credit: Catherine Ashmore