"Racine's Phaedra deracinated in Hampstead"
by Chris Bearne on 06/02/16

Others will write about this production of “Phaedra”, highly recommended as a rare chance to see … but I was so taken with the experience of watching it that I would like to explore a different avenue. I am currently involved in a crowdfunding project aimed at synthesising music and poetry. The poetry is in French, the music an international trio. It works. But Racine’s plays in English? Many times tried, often triumphantly, seldom if ever perfectly. It’s that poetry and music thing. Racine’s alexandrines have their own music, their declamatory, orotund ring, their flowing line-ends, their near-operatic impact. When it comes to high tragedy, to the vicissitudes suffered by the great in the hands of the gods, the state, the elements, we English are the past masters, but our vernacular is different, we are earth and fire where the French are air and water. Our versions of their great dramas can only become grounded once they transit from French to English, with its gritty, muscular sounds, its variety of assonance and alliteration, its demand for physical expression … its earthiness.
This, by way of preamble to the spare, courageous, arresting and moving work that is “Phaedra”, currently running under Seamus Newham’s direction at Pentameters. The story is a powerful one (the doomed love of Phaedra for her stepson Hippolytus, son of Theseus), the unities – of time, place and action – scrupulously observed, the setting austere, the drive relentless, the performances, especially by Julia Faulkner (Phaedra) and Giorgio Galassi (Hippolytus) high-octane, concentrated and moving.
Now Pentameters is a very intimate venue and these people are in extremis before us, almost within arms’ reach. They are exposed, to an extent never I think experienced on the big stage. There you are immensely visible, but distance reduces exposure, somehow. It is an exciting and privileged thing to have your high drama delivered with such immediacy. The play demands big acting, but minimal projection ; the venue counsels caution. Never once did the cast fall into that trap (possible exception, Theseus’ first entrance, but, hell, he is the king and we have been waiting for ages to clap eyes on him). However, for me, less might have been more. With this proximity, subtleties of expression and gesture can be minimal, as in close-up screen performance, and I would have been even more arrested by that. There was imaginative and energetic movement, commendably devised and delivered, but in a way I think dissipatory.
And that is what got me to musing about the language. We English, with our mighty appetite and aptitude for drama, are repeatedly drawn to the European greats – the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Scandinavians - and every time we uproot them we are faced with the dilemma of translation, never more delicate than with French. The Samuel Solomon version used for this production has all sorts of felicitous renderings and echoes of the original, but to couch them in “actable English” necessarily takes the staging away from gallic into English convention, from alexandrine to blank verse or even Prayer Book English for addressing the gods. This drama is visceral, and in the original it is enough for its power to radiate from the protagonists, to be broadcast through the poetry of the lines … and its music. There less is more : minimal movement, economy of gesture, even ”no touching”. I wonder …

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