The Next British Invasion

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

This summer in London, some of the world's most well-known English actors are performing some of the world's most well-known stage dramas. These shows sold out almost immediately, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're worth seeing. The Waiting for Godot starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is fitfully enjoyable but uninspired. The two actors look like they're having fun, but director Sean Mathias (who was responsible for that dreary Cherry Orchard at the Taper a few years back) is unable to elicit enough comedy or depth to make the show feel like more than a crowd-drawing star vehicle.

The Hamlet starring Jude Law is a bit more substantial. Law adopts a slouched posture and bored demeanor, making his Danish Prince seem like a lazy, troubled royal ripped from the pages of a recent Hello! magazine. It works and Law is insightful in the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy as he wanders barefoot through a snowy tableau in Michael Grandage's dark, moody production (it was to be helmed by Kenneth Branagh — that would have been interesting.) The problem though, is the supporting cast; but we'll hold off any extended discussion of this, as it looks like this Hamlet will be coming to Broadway, so we'll just wait and say more then.

The one sold-out show that lives up to its hype is the National Theatre's production of Phèdre, which as luck would have it, is coming briefly to the U.S. this fall — and can be seen, thanks to the wonders of digital technology, here in Los Angeles one week from tonight.

Racine's 17th century masterpiece is still often staged in France, but much less so in English language theaters. (Glendale's A Noise Within was the last LA theater to attempt Phèdre with mixed results) Racine's rhymed alexandrines are famously difficult to translate, so director Nicholas Hytner wisely uses a 1998 Ted Hughes version, which aims more for immediacy of emotion rather the fidelity to the meter and poetry.

Hytner's staging matches Hughes' translation in terms of simplicity and boldness. The drama unfolds on one unchanging set that looks as if it's modeled on one of the more picturesque travertine alcoves of the Getty Museum.

phedre2.jpgRacine's story is based on Greek myth and Hytner's staging (especially stage left's bright, blue slash of light) stylishly evokes the Mediterranean. The acting also calls to mind the style of classic Greek Tragedy (Racine based Phèdre on Euripides' Hippolytus), as do Bob Crowley's costumes, which look as if they were inspired from an old Martha Graham production of Clytemnestra.

Because of all this, the National Theatre's Phèdre probably doesn't resemble what was seen on stage at its premiere back in 1677 Paris at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, but it still works as insightful piece of modern interpretation. What's more, it also works as gripping, visceral theater.

phedre3.jpgThe cast is first rate: Ruth Negga's willowy Aricia, Dominic Cooper's rugged, thoughtful Hippolytus, and Stanley Townsend's blustery, basso Theseus all excel. But the center of the show is obviously Phèdre, performed by Dame Helen Mirren. Mirren looks great, enjoys three costume changes, and commands the stage whenever she enters. Make no mistake, this is a star turn, but in the best sense of the word. In a static play, Mirren's voice provides dynamism, like when she drops an octave mid-sentence to give the line “I am possessed” extra dramatic weight. This, and the way uses her whole body to convey Phèdre's grand emotions, would be likely be too much in a modern play; but in Racine's mythical drama, it works. This is a big-ticket theater summer blockbuster that doesn't disappoint.

Phèdre runs through August 27 at the National Theatre in London, the production travels to Washington DC in September, and will be broadcast to cinemas around the world, including the Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood next Thursday evening at 7pm.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Phèdre images: Catherine Ashmore