The rolling waves of Jean Racine's mighty alexandrines have not crashed upon our shores for many years, and not least among the serious pleasures of Cheek by Jowl's Andromaque – co-produced with Peter Brook's Bouffes du Nord in Paris – is the chance to stand on the beach and wallow.
Hermione's predicament at the start of the fifth act, so simply and rhythmically expressed, is a good example of Racine's noble style in his first big success.
The language gathered force and complexity in his last great masterpiece, Phèdre, but in Andromaque it's pure and simple, utterly direct. In the chaotic aftermath of the Trojan War, Andromaque, Hector's widow and Pyrrhus's captive, must take part a false marriage to save her son, while Hermione, Helen's daughter, is as smitten by Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, as Orestes, son of Agamemnon, dotes on her.
The participants dance an impassioned gavotte of the emotions in a geometric design completely honoured in Declan Donnellan's production, which is sustained with tremulous dedication by actors in a black void dotted with unadorned chairs.
It must have looked grander, starker, in the pock-marked dilapidation of the Bouffes in Paris, but the performances of Camille Japy as Hermione, Xavier Boiffier as Orestes and Christophe Gregoire as the king create an atmosphere of suffocating tension.
More than two decades ago, in the early days of Cheek by Jowl, Donnellan and his designer Nick Ormerod produced the English language premiere of Andromaque as a chamber piece for five unrequited lovers somewhere in the Mediterranean in the 1940s. Orestes was like a young Prince Philip, the ladies chic and pleated like the Andrews Sisters.
Despite the distraction of English surtitles – not remotely matching the French in meaning or metre – the play now throbs with its full unmediated power and majesty, the actors pinioned in the tragic void like insects under glass, moving from corridor to antechamber in pools of light and gasps of passion.
There's no hiding place for misery and despair: Racine's the real thing, watch out.
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