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July 12, 2009

My trip to England last year was my first since 2000, a 10 week break, long overdue and very much needed. I spent much of my time going to museums and galleries, literary festivals and book fairs, walking around town and up and down Southbank where I would occasionally stop and sit outside the National Theatre, read my book, have a drink, and watch people stretch out in the sun on those giant green armchairs.

NT Green Armchairs

One evening I was there at the right time and wandered inside in hope of getting a last minute discount ticket. I was rewarded by a couple whose friend couldn’t make it, and got to see The Year of Magical Thinking, starring Vanessa Redgrave. It was a remarkable performance, hugely emotional, one of the highlights of my trip.

We have good theatre in Sydney, but not often outstanding, not like that. So when I saw that the National Theatre was launching a new project called NT Live, “an exciting initiative to broadcast live performances of plays onto cinema screens worldwide”, and that “the four show pilot season will launch with Phèdre, with Helen Mirren, Margaret Tyzack and Dominic Cooper,” I quickly got myself a ticket to yesterdays Sydney screening, keen to see the play and how it would work. We didn’t get to see it live, but it was only 2 weeks later, not bad at all, and in the meantime I was reading glowing reviews like this, which made me look forward to it all the more.

Phèdre is a play by Jean Racine, translated by Ted Hughes. I won’t get into a detailed synopsis, if you’re interested there is one in the background pack, available here at the NT Live website. Helen Mirren plays the title role, whose character is married to the King of Athens, Theseus (Stanley Townsend), but is in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, played by Dominic Cooper. Suffice to say, tragedy ensues.



Now, I love going to the theatre and I know I saw it on the screen but, can I say, it was one of my favourite ever theatre experiences. It definitely makes the top 5. Ted Hughes’ translation is brilliant, the play has a strong rhythm, but I didn’t find it overbearing, it simply emphasised the emotions on display. There were a couple of lines in particular that stayed with me: “Venus has fastened on me like a tiger” perfectly summarises Phèdre’s agony. Fantastic stuff. It made me want to go home and read and re-read his poetry.

With a performance like this, I don’t think there is any doubt or worry in advance that it’s going to be anything other than good. But it was great. Helen Mirren was full of madness and rage and despair. I’m now officially on the Dominic Cooper bandwagon. He was, obviously gorgeous, but his performance had a stillness, a muscular elegance I don’t think I’ve seen in his film performances. That same elegance and nobility belonged to Ruth Negga who played Aricia, the prisoner loved by Hippolytus. Phèdre’s nurse, Oenone (Margaret Tyzack), was by turns caring and reckless. John Shrapnell, as Théramène, Hippolytus’ counsellor, was brilliant, his speech at the end was horrific and spellbinding. The anticipation surrounding he arrival of Theseus was palpable, and Stanley Townsend was a powerhouse of strength and authority, with an underlying current of wildness.



Something I loved was that the screening was preceded by some brief but interesting interviews with some of the cast, the director, Nicolas Hytner, and the designer, Bob Crowley, whose concise explanation of the set design added much to my appreciation of it during the performance. The set was everything it needed to be, simple, but like another character, as was the light, both large and oppressive.

As I went into the cinema, the usher said to me, ‘enjoy the film-I mean play’. It really is a hybrid. The team involved in developing NT Live have obviously put a great deal of thought into what filming could bring to the experience. I had wondered whether it would be passive, just using a single camera, showing the entire stage the whole time, in order to maintain the theatrical experience of a single viewpoint. I was so glad they didn’t. There were several cameras, so we could see the stage from different angles and focus in on the characters at key moments. It enhanced the experience, rather than taking away from it.

The negatives of the screening were tiny. The bit with Jeremy Irons introducing was a bit odd. He seemed quite uncomfortable. There was a slideshow promoting the National Theatre before the introduction, which would have been fine, except that it went for ages, all the slides were shown 2 or 3 times, and it was accompanied by some particularly cheesy guitar music. A couple of times I noticed the zips on the costumes, which took me out of the story for a moment (perhaps they could have been invented by Daedalus?) Plus, I would have loved a program, or even a flyer – my ticket stub just wasn’t enough. But these are tiny things.

It was wonderful. A success. A brilliant idea. In addition to being in my top 5 theatre experiences, it’s probably my favourite film of the year so far. The next NT Live production is All’s Well That Ends Well, and it’s coming to a cinema near you in October. I can’t wait.

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