28/4/09, Silk Street Theatre (Barbican)
3 hrs. Racine in the original, directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod. Though quite what O contributed isn't clear: the Silk Street theatre, the Guildhall School's performance space, was bare to the back wall and the only props were a handful of metal chairs. Only the costumes were evidently "designed": mostly black 1940s suits and skirts, which D cleverly suggested were meant to remind us of Vichy, appropriate for a play about an imprisoned woman being pressurised into collaborating with her victorious captor.
Surtitles meant it was easy enough to follow, but unsatisfying. You get the impression that half the pleasure of Racine for a French audience is the verse, which we could not appreciate. There is of course very little action. Perhaps to cover this, the actors cannoned around the stage like snooker balls. Their motivation seemed similarly wayward, changeable, unpredictable: positions would change mid-scene, violently and completely and almost arbitrarily. One moment Pyrrhus is a loving substitute father to Astyanax, hoping thereby the win Andromaque's hand in marriage; the next she rejects him and he is not merely disappointed but actively vowing death and destruction upon her and the child. A few scenes later he's planning to marry her again.
Apropos surtitles: we arrived to find Marcus and Daniel in the seats next to us (spooky, or what?). They are regular (dedicated) opera-goers. We agreed two things: 1 surtitles are a lot easier to handle in opera where there are far fewer of them, because fewer words; 2 this kind of classical tragedy needs music. M said in the second half he kept counting the arias, or rather the places where there should have been arias. My view: 18th century opera seria is a notoriously arid and austere form, but it make perfect sense when you realise the alternative is Racine.
It's easy (and probably rather crass, but I'll do it anyway) to marshal objections to Racine's procedures. A helpful essay by Lytton Strachey reprinted in the programme argues that the active premise of his work is that characters and events converge at the moment of most extreme crisis, whence arises the drama. The whole point is the concentration of emotion and conflict. But I kept thinking how much more straightforward things would be if the characters took a more moderate approach: deployed a little sensible English pragmatism, if you will.
Compare Shakespeare, whose tragedies manage to work up to moments of extreme catharsis more gradually and more plausibly and psychologically more convincingly. Macbeth is tempted by Lady M. Lear gradually comes to realise his folly. Othello is tempted by Iago into irrational jealousy. Hamlet (famously) agonises. Racine seems to dispense with all that psychological underpinning: he's not interested in winding his characters up, only in what happens once the spring is taut and the catch released.
In that respect his plays resemble classical Greek tragedies. But in fact he has more in common with Shakespeare. Greek tragedies are all the gods' fault; the human characters are merely their victims, who respond with greater or lesser dignity to their predicament. In Racine, as in Shakespeare, the characters all have choices and we see them exercising their freedom to choose (unwisely, so bringing tragic events upon themselves) while in the grip of passions like love (in the case of Oreste and Pyrrhus) which looks a lot like obsession; or because they've been seized by noble but excessive sentiments (Andromaque's reverence for her dead husband Hector, which leads her to court destruction both for herself and for her son); or because they're spoiled children who have inherited their parents' devastating combination of beauty, greed, stupidity and arrogance (Hermione, daughter of Helen and Menelaus, and hoping to marry Pyrrhus).
So an illuminating evening, and thought-provoking, but long and a touch tedious and not one (I told everyone) I was keen to repeat any time soon. And then someone pointed out that we have tickets for Helen Mirren as Phedre at the National in July.