Poetry in Motion

Racine demon: Toby Stephens in Phèdre.Photo: Alastair Muir, courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Jean Racine was arguably the greatest dramatic poet after Euripides. Not the greatest poetic dramatist; that was Shakespeare. In Racine the poetry preponderates, with the drama a close second. Rimbaud, probably the foremost poetic revolutionary the world has ever known, famously rejected all poetry since the classical Greek as “the game of countless idiotic generations”; Racine alone was “the pure, the strong, the great.” Rimbaud may have been right: In rhythm, melody, and imagery, with which Racine conveyed emotion and dramatic movement while using an austere reduced vocabulary, he may have no equal. But he must be heard in French: Such lyrical-dramatic poetry is untranslatable.

Still, we must welcome Britain’s Almeida Theatre for the gallant effort to bring Racine to Anglophone audiences, imperfect as such an enterprise must be. The alexandrine, France’s strict hexameter verse – twelve syllables, a preferably medial caesura (break), and alternating masculine (one-syllable) and feminine (two-syllable) rhymed couplets – cannot be replicated in English. Our hearing is indissolubly wedded to five-beat Shakespearean blank verse, usually unrhymed iambic pentameter. Almeida came to bam with Phèdre in Ted Hughes’s free-verse version and Britannicus in Robert David MacDonald’s rhymed-hexameter translation. The former takes too many alienating liberties; the latter succumbs to its literalism: A sixth foot, rhymed to boot, clanks hobnailed across our ears.

Herewith a brief, barely adequate example. Hippolytus describes his stepmother Phaedra in a famous verse as “la fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé.” In English, this becomes “the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë,” as ordinary as a glass of beer. In French, the reiterated high-pitched ee sound in fille and Minos suggest lightness and grace, Phaedra’s beauty; the emphasis on the two dark ahs in Pasiphaé, the second turning into an outcry with that strongly accented é, is filled with somber foreboding. The English line, lacking even the middle caesura, does nothing; the very gets near-diphthongized into a dying fall.

Racine’s speeches tend to be long, allowing them to turn into dramatic poems. Translated into English, they are not only prosy; they also become wearisome. I am not sure whether transcendent acting could overcome this; there are hints in these Almeida productions that it might. But what we mostly get is stylish performing, often intense but very rarely exciting.

Generally, this is not a problem of verse-speaking; only one of the actors, David Bradley, is a reciting clockwork. What helps muddle matters is the vagueness, often contradictoriness, in time and place. In Britannicus, we have Anglicized names (Nero, Agrippina – not Néron, Agrippine) but strict, quasi-French versification. The festive set by Maria Björnson is of Racine’s period, but the costumes are today’s. In Phèdre, Hughes’s free verse is modern in diction, but the Björnson set and costumes are Racinian. Phaedra remains French, Phèdre, but we get a Theseus and Hippolytus – not Thésée and Hippolite. Jonathan Dove’s music is classicizing in Phèdre but jazzy in Britannicus. A bit of a mismatch or, as we say in French, mishmash.

Ingeniously and economically, the same framework supports both unit sets, but for all the differences in detail, the basic inverted-L shape in both grates a little. John A. Leonard’s sound is muddy for distant crowds, e.g., the killing of Narcissus in B. and the approach of Theseus in P. seemingly by rattling trolley car. But the sound of Neptune’s fateful waves lapping the nearby shore is masterly. Mark Henderson’s lighting does wonders in P. by the changing times of day outside the majestic row of windows (and powerfully adds Tony Palmer’s film of giant, swirling breakers). In B., however, Henderson experiments with patches of light that range from painterly to distracting.

Jonathan Kent has directed with a nice blend of realism and stylization, though he too often has someone hug the walls in a cross between a caryatid and a horror-film actor. He does justice, though, to making visible the motivations of the characters, and gets good results from his cast.

Diana Rigg cuts a fine figure as Agrippina and, despite a ragingly rutilant Louise Brooks wig, as Phèdre. But there is something very contemporary-Freudian about her enactment of grand passions, and too self-consciously sexy about her low, come-hitherish voice, even when her line readings are duly controlled. Toby Stephens is believable as the spoiled, weak, sinister young Nero with tidily slicked-down hair; as a circusily costumed Hippolytus, his punk hair stands up, but his performance does not. There is nothing pure or heroic about him.

Outstanding among the rest are Julian Glover (more as Theseus than as Narcissus), Barbara Jefford (beautifully spoken as Oenone and Albina), and charming young Joanna Roth of wonderful presence and an assured future. Almeida’s Phèdre is a sometimes rewarding piece of adult education; Britannicus, flawed but fascinating.

Poetry in Motion