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Greek Soap, Modern Theater:
A Tragic Experience

By Jean Racine, translation by Ted Hughes
National Theatre at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

With headliner Helen Mirren in the title role, this production from England's National Theatre took up a short residence at the STC—its only American run—and promptly sold out. We were fortunate to get balcony seats (and got our seats early by virtue of being regular season subscribers), but unfortunately suffered the shortcomings of STC's new home. On this night, it was the tight spaces between rows of seats making for cramped knees and whiplashed necks whenever the person behind us kicked the backs of our seats. The seats also shuddered whenever somebody in our row coughed, laughed, or sneezed. And people coughed and sneezed a lot, often drowning out the lines on stage.

So forgive me for not gleaning more from what was happening on the stage itself. Phedre seemed to me an overwrought thing—kind of an ancient Greek soap opera—but still gripping in the psychological plot. Mirren was the star, and got the standing O with her curtain calls but, frankly, hers was not so much a memorable performance as it was Helen Mirren in the flesh.

The night's most powerful performance came from Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus, the stoic son of the union between a hero and an Amazon. He weaved his emotions through his reputed stoicism, his love for Aricia, his dislike for Phedre, his shocked revulsion at her attempted seduction, and his frustration trying to earn the respect of his father. That father, Theseus, was, in Stanley Townsend's portrayal, a cross between a Mafioso boss and a preening superstar.

Another notable player was John Shrapnel as Theramene who brought a casual naturalness to his lines that was refreshing in a play primarily comprising a succession of long speeches; but when given his own setpiece describing Hippolytus's death, Shrapnel resorted to glib dancing for dramatic effect when a hushed stillness of voice and gesture might have carried much more power [Sarah disagreed; Theramene's animated retelling of Hippolytus's demise was a highpoint for her].

Eric Minton
September 26, 2009

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