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.
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