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September 21, 2009

'Phedre' with Helen Mirren takes us into another twilight of the gods

It's always a privilege to be in the presence of great artists -- musical, dramatic, visual. The production of Racine's "Phedre" from the National Theatre of Great Britain provides such an occasion. It's in D.C., thanks to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, for a short run, a visit well worth catching. (If you didn't snare a ticket when they went on sale -- and quickly sold out -- months ago, this is a good opportunity to practice your bribery skills. Or maybe breaking and entering.)

I reviewed the show already, but I haven't stopped thinking about it. For one thing, the level of acting, from a terrifically cohesive ensemble headed by the divine Helen Mirren, left quite a mark. Long after my evening at the Harman Center, I found myself recalling the richly layered texture of Mirren's vocalism -- a term I'd usually reserve for opera singers. Mirren was like a great mezzo, relishing the nuances of timbre, the ability to sculpt a phrase in such a way that every syllable registers with impact.

For that matter, the whole performance was

an opera in speech. After all, we're talking ancient myth here, the same sort of material that produced so many operatic works. Racine's take on the Euripides original (and the striking English version by Ted Hughes that the National Theatre production uses) puts us right into the same sort of place where Wotan and his breed are stuck in Wagner's "Ring," a place where love, including the incestuous variety (the dramatic spark in "Phedre"), swallows up mortals and causes gods to take sides.

I noticed at the performance of "Phedre" I attended that odd laughs occasionally broke out in the audience, I assume because some of the dramatic situations seemed too silly by today's oh-so-high standards of entertainment. Greek tragedies aren't staged every day, so maybe theater audiences just aren't prepared for all the emotion and fate-twisted events. We opera freaks, of course, are overly familiar with this sort of thing, and we're known to find it terribly plausible and moving.

One of the pleasures of seeing this brilliantly realized "Phedre" was this operatic quality -- in both the play itself and the delivery of it -- and the chance to delve again into the whole fascinating issue of the gods, those willful, wily beings who seemed to cause so much trouble. I suspect that a lot of ancient Greeks figured out that mortals caused plenty of problems on their own, that blaming the gods was a very tricky business.

At the end of "Phedre," when Theseus is left to mourn his son, a scene this production makes extremely powerful without overdoing a thing, it's really another twilight of the gods. The deities are not consumed as they are at the end of "Gotterdammerung," of course, but they're much weaker, fainter. The humans are left to grow out of their misery, and the realization that much of their grief stems from not being honest with each other and with themselves, not being able to listen and respect, or look beyond the superficial. Lessons, it seems, that we poor humans still have trouble learning today.

By the way, I'd feel guilty posting a video clip I found of "Phedre," taped during a performance that Mirren and her colleagues gave recently in Greece, because it just doesn't seem quite kosher. Presumably, the same "no audio or visual recording of any kind" message was given to that audience. But if you care to go surfing on a certain popular Web site famed for its massive trove of video clips (HINT: it rhymes with "New Boob"), you'll find a nine-minute sampling of a live performance that will give you a taste of this exceptional production.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:23 AM | | Comments (1)


Thanks for this review. I saw the performance 4 times in London, and I absolutely agree with what you say.

Thanks very much for commenting. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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