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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
BERENICE
at the Donmar Warehouse

MAJESTIC SADNESS
By SAM MARLOWE

  Anne-Marie Duff and Stephen Campbell Moore/ Ph: Johan Persson

Anne-Marie Duff is a wonderful actor: intelligent, unsparingly open, luminous, rivetingly watchable. It takes all her very considerable talents to revitalise this production of Jean Racine’s 17th-century romantic tragedy – and even then, it’s still a challengingly chilly watch. The Booker-winning novelist Alan Hollinghurst has reworked Racine’s 1670 text, in the original French written in Alexandrine couplets, using unrhymed pentameter. It’s clear and coolly immediate, but it’s too deliberate to stir the senses overmuch, and sounds unexcitingly sparse to ears better accustomed to the richness of Shakespeare. Josie Rourke’s production, similarly. is elegant, measured and rather arid. Racine himself referred to the play’s “majestic sadness;” here, there is majesty, certainly, but the sadness rarely pierces or moves.
 
The transporting Duff is Berenice, a Palestinian queen in love with Stephen Campbell Moore’s Roman royal Titus. In the wake of the recent death of Titus’ father, he is about to become emperor; and though Berenice doesn’t yet know it, this means the brutally abrupt end of their affair, since the Romance populace will never accept a foreign monarch as their empress. The third corner in this unhappy love triangle is Antiochus (Dominic Rowan), king of Comagene and close friend to Titus, who has long adored Berenice himself. His revelation of his feelings causes her an acute distress that foreshadows the anguish she will suffer when she realises that she must lose Titus forever.
 
Lucy Osborne’s design covers the reconfigured Donmar stage with tawny sand. A skeletal blond-wood staircase winds upwards; more sand trickles in fine columns from the ceiling, like a series of hourglasses measuring out the minutes until the trio must confront their unhappy fate and their hopes of happiness are irrevocably extinguished. Duff first appears at the head of the stairs, dressed in a red and gold one-shouldered gown slit to the thigh, flaxen ringlets falling to below her waist. She is radiant, and as regal as she is sensual, her features illuminated by undisguised passion. All that light and colour drains from her cheeks, tracked by glistening tears, as Rowan’s rather wet, public-schoolboyish Antiochus confesses his longing for her. And though Racine and Hollinghurst give her restrained language in which to express it, her devastation at separation from Campbell Moore’s lugubrious Titus has a scalding intensity.
 
Campbell Moore has gravitas, and his features, drawn with anxiety, dark circles beneath the eyes, express something of his pain. But his delivery has a repetitive rise-and-fall intonation that sounds artificial and slightly soporific; while Rowan, though his more youthful energy and comparative lightness is a good counterbalance to Campbell Moore’s heft, never really projects a sense that there is much emotionally at stake for him.
 
The tragedy famously ends not with death or high drama, but with compromise – with the quiet, sorrowful acceptance of all three that the world they live in demands the sacrifice of their happiness. In that respect, it feels both modern and timeless. But it is a difficult drama that demands much from its audience, and largely withholds its rewards.

 


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