Berenice, Donmar Warehouse, London
Wednesday 03 October 2012
The English theatrical spirit revels in indecorum, in laying banana skins under the paths of the high-minded, in developing a proliferation of sub-plots and in generally reserving rhyme for the comic antics of pantomime doggerel.
So there's the perennial headache of how to adapt the seventeenth-century neo-classical tragedies of Racine with their grandeur of manner, their streamlined obedience to the unities and their elevated alexandrine couplets.
Director Josie Rourke and her translator, the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist, Alan Hollinghurst, come up with a largely satisfying solution to the problem in this revival of Berenice, a tragedy that untypically ends in tears and renunciation rather than in revenge and gore.
Titus, having just succeeded his father as Emperor of Rome, knows that he is now doomed to banish his beloved Berenice, since the public will stomach neither a foreigner nor a queen. As he agonises over love and duty and tries to summon the courage to confront her, he turns unwittingly for help to his royal friend Antiochus who is himself besotted by her.
Racine, in his defence of the play, referred to the “majestic sadness which is all the pleasure of tragedy” and that mood is skilfully captured here by the blank verse translation and the performances that manage to give the drama a non-declamatory intimate scale, while preserving a sense of the Racinian tension between formality and emotional ferocity.
Barefoot in red and gold, regal yet frisson-inducingly flesh-and-blood, Anne-Marie Duff's splendid Berenice moves from a dreamy rapture of baseless optimism, through bewildered hurt and scorn at the vacillations of her lover, to a glitteringly willed radiance when she recruits the two men to a future of pain and self-sacrifice.
An exhausted-looking Stephen Campbell Moore brings home both the gruelling nature of Titus's high-stakes dilemma and his cowardly shiftiness, while Dominic Rowan adroitly alerts you to the faint edge of farce in the fate of the hapless Antiochus.
Indecision and failures of courage can be wryly highlighted by shifts of direction on the weird wooden staircase that rears over Lucy Osborne's sandpit set. And I loved the way that Hollinghurst's translation, having eschewed rhyme throughout, held one back for Berenice's final declaration when she says that the world will see this trio as a type of “the most tender and unhappy love/That it could bear the doleful history of”. At once clinching and (in its word order) jarring, a perfect couplet for a tragedy that ends in an atmosphere of awkward, bleak survival.
To 24 November; 0844 871 7624
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove