October 3, 2012 5:45 pm

Berenice, Donmar Warehouse, London

Anne-Marie Duff is superbly tormented and vivid in the title role, but the drama itself is somewhat arid
Anne-Marie Duff and Stephen Campbell Moore in ‘Berenice’©Johan Persson

Anne-Marie Duff and Stephen Campbell Moore in ‘Berenice’

Mid-way through Josie Rourke’s elegant revival of Berenice, the irreverent thought occurred to me that Racine’s plot is in part that of a thousand pop songs: “I’m in love with my best friend’s girl.” The fact that such a flippant realisation forced its way in amid the elevated sentiments on stage is surely a good thing: testament to the work done by Rourke and her cast to animate Racine’s distant characters and make their dilemma sing out. And in places this production really connects, particularly when Anne-Marie Duff is on stage – her luminous Berenice is superb: tormented and vivid, she lifts the drama whenever she makes an entrance.

Elsewhere, though, it’s pretty heavy going. Racine’s 1670 play dramatises a crisis, as passion and duty come to a crossroads. Berenice and Titus appear to be on the verge of happiness: Titus’s father having died, he is to become Roman Emperor and can marry Berenice. But Rome rules against a foreign queen. Titus must choose between love and duty. Meanwhile his friend Antiochus also nurses a passion for Berenice, and struggles to contain his fluctuating feelings as the marriage appears to be on, then off, then on again.

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Racine twists and tightens the dilemma, moving through each new stage with the precision of a mathematician developing an algebraic equation. There is certainly an austere beauty to it, as characters talk their way through their quandaries, wrapping up pain in precise articulation. Alan Hollinghurst’s new translation replaces the rhyming alexandrines of the original with blank verse – easier on the English ear – yet retains the distilled quality of the dialogue. And Rourke draws out the psychological truths in the drama, with Dominic Rowan even finding humour in Antiochus’s shilly-shallying, as he jogs up and down stairs changing his mind, while his confidant wrings his hands.

But still the play remains curiously remote, even in this intimate space. Racine’s characters seem barely to exist outside their moral conundrum, which makes them arid, and their endless agonising becomes draining. Stephen Campbell Moore has bearing and physical warmth, but can’t quite convince you of the conflict raging in his breast. Duff is mercurial: her scarlet robe revealing bare legs and feet, she combines regal dignity and vulnerable physicality. And the end, as she resigns all three to their fate, is riveting. But ultimately you are inclined to agree with Antiochus’ confidant when he observes: “How you delight in torturing yourself.”

3 stars

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