Berenice at the Donmar Warehouse
This recent adaptation directed by Josie Rourke and penned by Alan Hollinghurst breathes new life into Racine.
For those of you unfamiliar with Jean Racine, he was a 17th-century playwright who mainly wrote tragedies in alexandrine rhyming couplets. This writing style coupled with the tone and feeling of his plays often means that he is overlooked or else poorly treated in translation and production on a British stage. Not so here, as director of the Donmar, Josie Rourke has staged a confident and altogether entertaining piece helped by a bare translation from the original French by Man Booker Prize winning author Alan Hollinghurst.
The rhyming couplets have been abandoned in favour of straight, simplistic dialogue which flows from the actors’ mouths in punchy spurts that compliment the oppressive tone of the story rather well and Racine’s often quoted vision of “that majestic sadness which is the whole pleasure of tragedy” is captured beautifully by the talented trio of protagonists.
Anne-Marie Duff (Shameless, Saint Joan) shines out as titular character Berenice; Queen of Syria who is deeply in love with newly appointed Roman Emperor Titus, played by Stephen Campbell Moore (All My Sons, The History Boys). All is not well in this affair though, because Berenice is a foreign monarch the populace will not accept her marriage to Titus. To further the dilemma we are introduced to Dominic Rowan (recently in A Doll’s House at the Young Vic) as Antiochus, a foreign prince who is a close confidant of both Emperor and Queen who tries and fails to repress his own passion for Berenice.
Duff’s portrayal of this regal lady, who begins the story as a woman, happy in love and then descends into mad grief after Titus spurns her in favour of his newly acquired Empire, is masterful. She truly runs a gauntlet of emotion that is at times painful to witness because of its fervour. Stephen Campbell Moore handles the complexity of Emperor Titus’ situation with similar verve, and his dialogue with his advisor Polianus – the archetypal stooped, hook nosed Roman politician brought to life by Stephen Cooke – is fraught, maddening and gains him no small amount of sympathy from the audience for the difficult choice he must make between love and career. Rowan seems wooden at first, but this quickly reveals itself to be part of Antiochus’ demeanour, being as he is a man who must constantly hide his desires from his two best friends. He even garners a few laughs later on after he is entreated by Titus to take Berenice away. His unwilling insertion between the two, coupled with his own feelings begins to feel almost farcical.
The set design is interesting, the audience enter to a sandy scene decorated only with a few wooden framed chairs and dominated by a rickety looking staircase and walkway suspended from the rafters. Fine columns of sand and smoke drift down from above, highlighted with spotlights to create a palpable measure of the ancient setting. Whilst having the sand spread out on stage is original it dominates one side with a huge dune which goes unused throughout the production, feeling subsidiary and shrinking the usable area of this already small space to near claustrophobic proportions. The walkway is similarly hard to navigate and the actors seem to have to traverse it with a care that limits the fluidity of their movements.
Overall this is an intelligent and aloof story, where the three main characters part not in tragic violence but a somehow more resonant and leaden sense of resignation, to live out their lives as leaders separately, denied of their intended happiness by their responsibility. It’s a great chance to see something that doesn’t often grace the stages of London’s theatres, and the intimate layout of the Donmar means that even the lower priced seats are some of the best in the house so it’s suitable for all budgets too.
Berenice is at the Donmar Warehouse now. For further information or to book call 0844 871 7624 or visit the theatre’s website here.