PHEDRE at Steppenwolf Review - Exclusive Chicago Screening

Phedre (Helen Mirren)

When visiting recently with friends in England, we were surprised to learn that they had planned a vacation around the screening of a performance of the Met live opera at their local theatre, an event so important to them that it became the focus of their schedule.  So when we found out that the National Theatre in London was doing something similar with a the pilot program of plays brought to theaters around the world, we were interested   And when we discovered that one of those plays, PHEDRE, would be appearing at Steppenwolf Theatre, we were very excited.  Steppenwolf’s exclusive Chicago screening of the National Theatre of London’s performance of Phèdre has great potential and raises many questions:  How does this presentation differ from a movie?  What is the impact of not having the actors live before this audience?  Will it be successful?   We were about to find out.

Phedre (Helen Mirren), Oenone (Margaret Tyzak)

Jeremy Irons and Nicholas Hytner (director), filmed the play with London in the background, explained their goal of reaching people worldwide to spread the power of the high quality performances offered at National Theatre. “The NT Live events are designed to bring what we do on the stages of the National to a far greater number of people than we would ever be able to reach otherwise,” says National Theatre Director Nicholas Hytner.  “Through high definition broadcasts, we have the technology at our disposal to present our productions beyond the four walls of the National, to reach passionate theatre-goers all over the world, and to do it really well.”

Helen Mirren

This version of Phèdre was written by Jean Racine and translated by Ted Hughes.  It is the story of Phedre (Helen Mirren) uncontrollably drawn to her stepson, Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper) and whose fantasies about him become nightmares in her husband,Theseus’s (Stanley Townsend) absence and presumed death.   Aricia (Ruth Negga) has been held captive but is the object of Hippolytus’s affection and they hope to marry.  When Theseus returns Phedre attempting to deflect her own guilty feelings accuses Hippolytus of rape and tragedy ensues. Helen Mirren says of her performance, "I am very happy to have the opportunity to play Phèdre -a rich, complex and demanding role - and to be part of NT Live, this grand new adventure for the National Theatre."

Hippolotus(Dominic Cooper),Phedre(Helen Mirren)

We began the evening by being transported to the Lyttelton Theatre in London, and soon were in Troezen on the northeastern tip of the Peloponnese.    Powerful drama was displayed at its best and the strength of the performance was enhanced by the clear views of the speaker.  The five cameras captured the live performance as each one moved to the best angle from which to see the actor delivering their part.   The filming was enhanced by the theater design which meant that no matter where a theatergoer was located, he or she had the “best seat in the house.”   This meant that every word could be heard-remarkable when seeing a play.  Acting really needs to be strong to sustain this kind of scrutiny and it was. We found the acting and sets to be outstanding.  Steppenwolf was filled and the audience reacted with laughter and applause as though part of a live performance.

Aricia (Ruth Negga), Hippolutus (Dominic Cooper)

“We are thrilled to continue our partnership with the National Theatre,” adds Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey.  “After bringing Steppenwolf’s hit play August: Osage County to UK audiences at the National this past winter, we are happy to share the National’s prestigious work with our theatre-goers here in Chicago,” adds Lavey The question of whether three future plays without Helen Mirren will draw an audience remains to be seen.  With a reasonable cost and such high level performance and the chance to “be in London” without the time and expense, I think this project will take off.

Hippolutus (Dominic Cooper), Theseus (Stanley Townsend)

This pilot production of NT LIVE is a new initiative by UK’s National Theatre to broadcast performances of plays on cinema screens around the world and will hopefully bring “theatre to the people”. The National Theatre stage performance of Phèdre filmed live in high-definition on June 25, 2009 broadcast via satellite to more than 200 movie theatres and performing arts venues worldwide opens a new door.

The play was not a movie but offered several advantages.  Finest acting can be shared, sound was excellent, and the significant views were available to all. Did this work?  From my perspective the answer is a resounding, “yes”.

NT Live events are distributed outside the U.K. through New York-based BY Experience, Inc. 
NT Live is funded in partnership with Arts Council England and NESTA.

For a complete list of participating locations and ticket information visit  For further information about NT Live, please contact Julie Borchard-Young at (718) 788-2882 or [email protected]

Photos: Catherine Ashmore


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