THEATER | Helen Mirren at the Guthrie (sort of): National Theatre’s “Phèdre” broadcast

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If you require any further proof that human technology changes much more quickly than human nature, grab a seat at the Guthrie, where a broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of Racine’s Phèdre unfolds like a fifth century telenovela.

The London production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, was filmed in high definition on June 25; it was shown live at theaters across the United Kingdom and is now being screened at over 200 other venues worldwide. It sounds like a democratizing enterprise—bringing the best of theater to audiences across the globe—but there’s also a whiff of old-school highbrow hierarchy about it. Your $20, after all, could buy you a ticket at any of several locally produced live performances. Granted, they don’t star Helen Mirren…but if star power is your priority, why not go to your local Blockbuster and rent The Queen?

phèdre, presented through july 9 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($20) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

Nitpicking aside, it’s certainly a stellar production. Unfolding on an eerie, cavernous set by Bob Crowley, the classic tale depicts intrigue among ancient Greek royals who are so recently descended from gods that they seem to spend summer vacations in Hades, where their kids probably have to wear those ugly sweaters Minos knit them. The eponymous antiheroine (Mirren), after admitting her lust for her stepson Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper), has to think quickly when her supposedly deceased husband Theseus (Stanley Townsend) returns from long imprisonment in a bat cave—where, he reveals, it’s not like the comics where you experience spiritual epiphanies and discover a personal mission to fight crime. You just get shat on.

All the cast members—even those without Oscars—are high-caliber performers, and there’s not a weak performance to be seen. (John Shrapnel comes closest as Hippolytus’s counselor Théramène, recounting an encounter with Neptune with such bug-eyed histrionics that you wonder whether he discovered a cache of Olympian shrooms.) Mirren does a creditable job of finding the human heart of a character whose dramatic arc takes her from disturbed to deranged, but although she’s looking great at 63, her romantic obsession with the 21-year-old Cooper reads quite differently than it would if Phèdre were played by, say, a cougarish 40-something.

It’s a good show, and you could certainly do a lot worse with your two hours and twenty bucks, but make no mistake: you’re going to the Guthrie to watch a movie. At the screening I attended, the audience reacted to the production much differently, I’m guessing, than they would if it were a live performance with the actors present on the stage. (For example, a big laugh went up at a cut from the pained, prostrate Mirren to the nonplussed Cooper.) Reviewing last fall’s production of Shadowlands in the same space—the McGuire Proscenium Stage—where Phèdre is being screened, I compared it unfavorably to the more intimate movie adaptation, calling the Guthrie production “a testament to the power of film.” With the Phèdre broadcast, film repays the compliment.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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