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March 5, 2013 5:24 pm
Even for tragedy enthusiasts, a Racine play with no intervals is bound to verge on alexandrine overkill. The Comédie-Française’s new production of Phèdre offers no respite from the downfall of the “monstrous” queen who has fallen for her son-in-law. It is an approach that highlights the classical unities of the genre but it would take a stronger staging to prevent eyelids drooping, as they started to around the two-hour mark on Monday.
This version for the renovated Salle Richelieu is an uneasy compromise between old and new, and a late change of director can’t have helped. Russia’s Dmitri Chernyakov, who was due to make a high-profile Comédie debut with Phèdre, was replaced a few months ago by Michael Marmarinos. A Greek director for a play set in ancient Greece was promising enough, and Marmarinos brought with him a slice of the Mediterranean: a glistening seascape serves as background, with light pouring through tall French windows upstage.
But shade is of the essence in Phèdre, and Marmarinos misses the mark when it comes to the tragedy itself. Racine’s grand, inexorable verse doesn’t lend itself to readings that go against the characters’ gravitas, and yet the production filters many of its mythological heroes through a nondescript modern, bourgeois lens. Lounge music undermines moments of stillness, and costumes veer between radically different worlds, with floor-length gowns for most of the women and Felliniesque garb for the men.
The cast features Comédie-Française stalwarts, but they got off to a sluggish start. Pierre Niney, hunched like a moody teenager in his brown raincoat, stretches the imagination as Hippolyte, while Jennifer Decker (Aricie) darts round the stage like a romantic screen lead. Inexplicably, a microphone stands in one corner, and the actors make regular pit-stops to amplify segments of the text – a strange departure from some near-inaudible early scenes.
But the production redeems itself in the unique relationship between Phèdre and Oenone, the queen’s pragmatic old nurse. Of the Racine confidants, Oenone is by far the most prominent and ambiguous, by turns maternal and Machiavellian in her efforts to save the queen at all costs. Clotilde de Bayser makes a brusque, ardent Oenone, while Elsa Lepoivre is the epitome of the majestic Racinian queen, her grave voice unwavering as she brings out the hubris that drives Phèdre to her death. An unlikely star couple, but reason enough to see the current cast.
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