'Berenice' review or 'Why so glum, chum?'

'Berenice', Racine
A new version by Alan Hollinghurst
Donmar Warehouse, Tuesday 2nd October 2012
Written for The Ham & High 

Racine is a bit of marmite figure in the theatre world, prompting love and hate in equal measure. His rigid poetic form, which goes by the lofty phrase 'dodecasyllabic alexandrine', is notoriously tough to translate and rarely travels well to these shores. Alan Hollinghurst has tried to free things up a little, lending Racine's verse a looser feel. Yet Josie Rourke's earnest production never mines the 'majestic sadness' that can, occasionally, light up Racine's darkly simmering tragedies.

The plot is even more restrained than usual. We open in Rome, where Titus (Stephen Campbell Moore) is set to be crowned Emperor. He longs to make Berenice (Anne-Marie Duff) his Empress but the Roman people are suspicious of this Palestinian Queen's foreign blood. The love triangle is completed by poor Antiochus (Dominic Rowan), a faithful soldier devoted to his Emperor and infatuated with Berenice. For nigh on two hours the desolate trio sigh, cry and rail against their sorrowful situation.

It all gets pretty damn wearing, as these three wallow in their woe. Hollinghurst's script is certainly fluid and there are some nice sparks of humour; 'Titus came, saw and – pleased – you.' However, the freer form saps the play's intensity. Racine's rigid verse, although sometimes trying, gives a powerful impression of the strict rules these mighty Kings, Queens and Emperors must adhere too. Without that formal language hemming them in, the agonised frustration never quite materialises.

Rourke, who is such a playful and energetic director, normally inspires such liberated performances. But the actors feel weighed down here, to the point of sometimes sounding robotic. Even Lucy Osbourne's design, which sees a suspended staircase hover over a stage filled with sand, feels like it's trying a little too hard.

Duff is one of the few actors to find a natural rhythm and dignity to her delivery. Her eyes emote more than the script itself, sparkling with lust and eventually clouding over in despair. But even an actress of Duff's vitality cannot breathe enough life into this solid but stolid production.


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