John Shrapnel and Dominic Cooper

Yesterday, I enjoyed an elemental theatre experience on a cinema screen…

It was a National Theatre offering of the 17th century play, Phèdre, but I was nowhere near the National Theatre in London. I was in Guernsey’s Performing Arts Theatre, part of a new experiment in British theatre that saw the Helen Mirren-led cast play to an audience spread over 70 cinemas across the UK and 200 more across the rest of the world, including the US and Australia.

It was a stirring experience, this fusion of classics, passion, poetry and technology. (Might as well break open the can of superlatives here…) Never was High definition TV better deployed. Every pitted grain of the walls of Bob Crowley’s striking set, relayed in finer detail that would have been seen by the patrons sitting in the National Theatre yesterday. And the pans and close-ups too. One can get used to this way of catching up with distant theatre!

Phedre is a play on Love turned Sour. Phèdre, the queen of Athens, (Helen Mirren, the range…) has fallen in love with her step son (Dominic Cooper, the passion…), and the absence and presumed death of her husband, King Theseus (Stanley Townsend, the presence…), is an opportunity to reveal her heart. But Hippolytus’ real love is another taboo: Aricia, who is condemned to maidenhood by the King of Athens. So Phèdre, bares her heart unavailingly to her stepson, only for the king to return from the dead. So she accuses Hippolytus of rape to save her name, and the play turns tragic with a vengeance, Hippolytus staying heroic to the end.

Sterling performances from everyone, but there is the odd shudder from John Shrapnel’s character, Theramene, Hippolytus’ counsellor, that steals my awe. And he totally uncorks his art to bring the sea monster to life towards the end of the play. No Hollywood, you don’t need more convoluted car chases, more stupendous plane crashes and comic hero CGIs to get your block-bursting audiences flinching in their seats. Get Shrapnel & Co. – and thanks, Catriona, for flagging up this performance for me!

You would think that a storyline cooked up four hundred years ago would have been rather dated now. But no, just write about Love, and your play (many other things being equal) won’t go out of fashion. Only yesterday as well, the missing King – sorry, Governor – of South Carolina also came back from an unexplained absence with sad consequences. This is a 21st century, real-time, drama of love, Argentinian mistresses, forgiving wives and an abrupt resignation from the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association. And that grinding sound? That is the electric hum of shredding machines across red America as GOP campaign teams across the land shred their copies of The Sanford 2012 White House Campaign Strategy. It is standard convention of course: infidelity is a pretty terminal blight on the character of a potential presidential candidate.

And this is the bit I do not get: someone please explain to me this subtle nuancing of American morality that requires a political chief executive to fall upon his sword when he errs on a bed not his own. Sure, infidelity is wrong… but Mr. President can err egregiously with a million tons of explosives, can order the death of hundreds of thousands of innocents, the sack of foreign governments, and still retire to bugle and brass bands… yet, if a potential president has a fling with an Argentinian lass his moral fibre becomes too coarse for the White House?

Link me up to a Morality 101 course, somebody?


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