Saturday matinee at the National for the much lauded production of Phedre. I suppose I should have loved it - but I didn't and I'm not sure why. It all seemed so much posturing, the characters slightly out of reach, operatic, not really rooted in the dilemmas with which they're faced. It's a cracking story of lust, pride, secrets and deception but Hytner's production seems to take us away from a face to face encounter and into the realms of flatterers and admirers gasping at the beautiful set, frizzed by being in the presence of Helen Mirren, but never really sucked into the turmoil.
Why this is so difficult to fathom is that the acting is very good. Mirren, as with all great performers is effortless, unchecked and sure moment to moment. Her love for her stepson Hippolytus tortured and contorted physically and vocally. Stanley Townsend's Theseus ranges across the stage like a true commander of the ancient world. A man/god of huge proportions - you do genuinely believe he has a hotline to Olympus and most impressive (possibly because the most human) John Shrapnel as the counsellor Theramene who seems the only one able to give psychological shape to Ted Hughes' translation.
The younger actors don't fare so well and for all their poised control neither Dominic Cooper, as Hippolytus, nor Ruth Negga, who plays the enslaved noble Aricia, really move beyond their drama school training. Technically sound, but lacking the twist or punch to fully command the roles.
I missed the production when it was screened at cinemas a couple of weeks ago as part of the new NT live initiative and two hours in, watching the rather staged blocking and the unimaginative fades from scene to scene I couldn't help but think the unthinkable: that this would be better in close up and might have been directed with one eye on the screening. The blues and whites of Greece always look lovely on celluloid and Dominic bare feet, rolled up trousers and elderly love interest has been on these islands before, albeit in Mamma Mia!