Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Sunday, August 23, 2009

2 Phaedras ( or possibly three)

Well, I went to Jerusalem and Phèdre on successive days and have been thinking of both of them ever since.

Jez Butterworth's play was a revelation - the first thing I've seen for ages that was totally unpredictable and unusual. I would go further and say it was the Look Back in Anger for the 21st Century, only much better written and with a far more sympathetic protagonist. The combination of Butterworth's exuberant, Joycean turn of language with the absolutely staggering performance of Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron, would have made it unmissable even without the very strong ensemble from a cast that included Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, the aspirant DJ.

Byron is an immensely charismatic figure, Falstaffian, a lord of misrule, whose tall tales are completely believable as they are told, even to a sceptical audience of mainly young punters who come to him for cheap or free booze and drugs. As my companion and I agreed, he would be a nightmare as a neighbour, but as a character he was mesmerising. And not amoral; he had his own standards and was actually hiding fifteen-year-old Phaedra Cox to protect her from an almost certainly abusive stepfather.

Johnny is about to be evicted by Kennet and Avon Council, from the copse in Rooster's Wood where he has illegally lived in his run-down old caravan for years. Somewhere along the way he (now fifty) has fathered a six-year-old son and by his own boasts, shagged most of the local female population. Byron, like his namesake, is a celebrity and a "legend in his own lunchtime."

He used to be a daredevil stuntman, jumping his bike over lines of buses, until the day he "died." The Flintock Fair in Wiltshire was his favourite showcase and it's Fair Day again today, St George's Day, during this play, which observes the classical unities of time and space.

But no summary of the plot conveys the importance of Jerusalem. The virtuosity of the language soars above the low mimetic vehicle chosen. Byron is the one in touch with legendary England, who can make you believe in heroic ancestors and long-forgotten giants. But that flag of St George on the curtain makes you uneasy. One of Byron's young followers, who works in an abattoir, killing 200 cows a morning before lunch, feels uncomfortable the minute his bike takes him over the border into Berkshire and is quite happy to hear that an old woman has been kicked to death for her scratchcard once he realises she's "not local" but from Wales.

Dave's kind of chauvinism would almost certainly lead him to vote BNP - if he could be arsed to vote at all. And Byron simply doesn't recognise politics and rules. I do hope the play gets a West End revival so that more people can see it; trust me - it and Rylance are going to win prizes, shinier than a fairground goldfish in a bag.

So Monsieur Racine had a lot to live up to. I'd read Phèdre at university and remembered the line that everyone does - "C'est Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée" which is rendered in the Ted Hughes translation as "Venus has fastened on me like a tiger." I suppose Hughes should know. But I felt the whole production suffered under Nick Hytner's direction from not deciding whether the acting was going to be naturalistic or more stylised and declamatory.

Helen Mirren in the title role had opted for the latter - with much clutching of the stomach and hair - while her husband Theseus when he showed up, for the former. This was reflected in the dress, which was just about modern for the women in a sort of floaty Hampstead Bazaar/Sahara kind of way but put the men into contemporary battle fatigues.

There were some problems with the for the most part exemplary translation, which I haven't discovered whether to attribute to Hughes or Racine himself. Hippolytus's Amazonian late mother is referred to as both Antiope and the more familiar Hippolyta - which is just muddly - and Phèdre describes Medea as her sister. Her sister? Phaedra was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae; Medea the daughter of the King of Colchis.

But when Theseus says that calling upon Poseidon to destroy his son was an "error of judgment" the jarring management-speak has to be Hughes' own. And why is it "Phèdre" "Theramène," "Ismène" but Hippolytus, Theseus and not "Hippolyte," "Thesée"? Some scansion issue?

It seemed so narrow - "the tedious old baggage banging on about fancying her stepson" as I felt when I came out, even though Mirren gave a performance which has been much admired. I missed the richness and variety of Shakespeare, even of Jez Butterworth. I looked at my watch a few times in the two hours that the tragedy ran continuously and never for a moment believed in the characters - unlike at the Royal Court.

In the cast list was an ad for Hans Werner Henze's new opera "Phaedra" in January so maybe I'll run round this story one more time.

All other news must wait till next week.

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