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Berenice, Donmar Warehouse

Jean Racine in a new version by Alan Hollinghurst
Directed by Josie Rourke

Pros: Passionate performances by Anne-Marie Duff and Stephen Campbell Moore. The set was visually striking and the quality of the production at the Donmar is excellent.

Cons: This play is hard going. The plot is simple and dull, the dialogue is long winded and tedious. Not a lot happens in one hour and thirty five minutes – it was very difficult to stay awake.

Our Verdict: Don’t see it unless you are a classical dramatist or a Racine enthusiast.

Courtesy of Johan Persson for The Telegraph

Berenice is billed as a tragedy, written by one of the great seventeenth century dramatists, Jean Racine. I like tragedy (who doesn’t love a good Shakespeare?) and I don’t mind listening to some challenging vocabulary if the story line is gripping. Knowing the quality of the acting is always first class at the Donmar, and having enjoyed a play there by a Spanish dramatist written at about the same time, I was hoping that I was in for a treat. I was wrong.

This production is dull. The plot is simple and uninteresting. Berenice and Titus are in love. Because he is the Emperor of Rome and she is the Queen of Palestine and a foreigner, he cannot marry her as Rome would not allow it. Their friend Antiochus loves Berenice too and tells her so, but she does not return his affections. There are tears as they all part company. Now there may have been more going on, but if there was, the dialogue was too tedious and laborious to eek it out. There is a lot of verbosity about not very much at all in this play and the tragedy is simply a few broken hearts. Unless you have knowledge and an interest in this particular style of drama, it is hard to find any real benefit in seeing it. It rambles on, and just when you think Titus might kill Berenice or himself (and you sincerely hope he does), he continues his grandiloquence on their predicament with more tears.

The set is visually striking – at least ten tonnes of sand on the stage, and a spindly, gravity defying staircase hovering fifteen foot overhead. As you enter the theatre and again at the end, there are spot lit strands of sand falling from way up in the theatre’s rafters which is really beautiful and poignant. Unfortunately, the use of the staircase during the production is a distraction that dissipates any drama that may have been building. Looking up at an obscured view of the characters using the staircase is just a little annoying and after Berenice’s first entrance, the dramatic effect is lost.

There is thankfully a shimmer of brilliance during the performance in the two principal actors. Anne-Marie Duff as Berenice is wonderful – she is passionate in love and desperate in rejection with the poise and dignity befitting a Queen. Stephen Campbell Moore as Titus is also excellent, his conflicting loyalties are sincere and his tenderness for Berenice ingenuous. Duff and Campbell Moore render the tedious dialogue with finesse and they create believable and lamentable fated lovers. Dominic Rowan as Antiochus is, by contrast, quietly dispassionate and rather wooden. There is nothing really noteworthy about the rest of the cast – they come they go, they talk, they sit, they stand, but they don’t add anything substantial.

If there are any readers of this review that have studied Racine and are well informed on his works, they are probably shouting at their screens right now, as Racine is one of the great French dramatists – the way he writes uses all the classical unities, and his precise poetics are celebrated. He intentionally omits any subplots from his plays and he is renowned for making the point that tragedy does not have to involve bloodshed. I don’t know anything about that, but I know this one hour and thirty five minutes was hard going, and it wasn’t just me. Someone was snoring on my left (yes, audibly snoring), and there were several sets of closed eyes and nodding heads around the theatre throughout the play. Maybe the wonderful things about Racine are lost in translation, maybe it’s just not for me, but I wouldn’t recommend seeing this production to anyone except a Racine fan.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Berenice runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 24th November 2012.
Box Office: 04844 871 7624 or book online at http://www.donmarwarehouse.com/pl147.html

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