Thursday, 4 October 2012
Berenice at The Donmar
Berenice by Jean Racine should be subtitled “I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure”, such is the should I, shouldn’t I dilemma facing the two male leads, Titus and Antiochus. It’s rather fortuitous that this interpretation by Alan Hollinghurst is relatively short, 1 hour, 40 minutes to be precise, because by the end I didn’t really give a dam whether they did or not. It’s not the fault of the actors, but of the play. Racine himself wrote a preface stating that he thought it unnecessary for there to be blood and death in a tragedy, it is sufficient that the action is great, the actors are heroic and the passions are excited. He felt that majestic sadness is the pleasure of tragedy. That may be enough for some but I felt somewhat short changed. There is certainly plenty of sadness on the present Donmar stage, with just one tiny glimmer of amusement but, I’m afraid no great denouement.
The plot, such is it is, is that Titus, on the recent death of his father, will now be Emperor of Rome. As such, he feels unable to marry the love of his life, Berenice, Queen of Palestine, because the Romans won’t tolerate a foreign queen as Empress. She must be banished. Meanwhile she has another man madly in love with her, namely, Titus’s friend Atiochus. Unfortunately Berenice doesn’t reciprocate his love and only has eyes and heart for Titus, all of which, understandably, makes for a very unhappy trio of characters.
There are positive aspects of this production apart from the excellent cast. Alan Hollinghurst’s version has dispensed with the original Alexandrine couplets, instead using unrhymed pentameter. The text is therefore presented in clear, simple language but, unfortunately, the whole piece is rather static. Unusually for The Donmar, this production is staged in the round and the set by Lucy Osborne is intriguing. A stage filled with sand, yet more sand drizzling down from the lighting rig and stairs and bridge as if made from wooden chairs. I am assuming the trickling sand is a metaphor for time running out for Berenice and her two ardent suitors and despite it being a tricky surface on which to work it is a very interesting interpretation. The Roman costumes also work well and Anne Marie Duff as the barefooted Berenice sporting waist length blonde tresses and a red sheath dress is most becoming.
The actors bring believable and recognisable emotion to the play, especially Anne Marie Duff. Her Berenice has a wealth of feeling from genuine warmth and palpable love when she wraps Titus in her arms, to almost controlled fury when she learns that his marrying her will not be politically correct. Furthermore her reaction on discovering it really is the end and she isn’t going spend the rest of her life with Titus is heart breaking to watch. Stephen Campbell Moore as Titus fairs almost as well, although I did lose concentration during some of his longer speeches, due I think to his slight sing songy approach to the text. I preferred Dominic Rowan’s Antiochus and felt quite moved during one of his declamations of love for Berenice, especially when a tear trickled down his ruddy cheeks.
My main thought on leaving the Donmar on Monday evening was that I’m really not in tune with Josie Rourke’s choice of production for my favourite London theatre. If the play is hardly ever staged or rather obscure she’s in favour of putting it on, if not, forget it. That’s all well and good but sometimes popular and straightforward are acceptable I can only hope that her choice of The Weir for next season is a sign of the new times to come.