Donmar Warehouse Autumn 2012
Not for those who want lots of visual action or theatricality, Racine's tragedy has much to reward audiences willing to listen to sincere discussions of things like honour, love and responsibility, and to appreciate strong and subtle acting.
In the mode of seventeenth-century French classical drama, very little happens onstage, and even passionate encounters between characters are more likely to involve extended speechifying at each other than realistic conversation. The challenge for directors and actors, then, is not to make it 'realistic' in modern terms, but to hold our attention through the long orations and convince us that what these people are talking about is of immense importance to them and therefore can be to us as well.
Director Josie Rourke and her cast achieve this to a remarkable degree, and if you are prepared to just sit and listen, you can be caught up in ninety minutes of intense, almost entirely verbal drama.
While still just the Roman Emperor's son, Titus won the love of pagan queen Berenice. But now that he has become Emperor he must face the fact that Rome (still remembering Cleopatra) will not accept a foreign Empress, and he must give her up, breaking both their hearts. Caught in the middle of this is his trusted friend Antiochus, who has loved Berenice in honourable silence himself, so there are three good people likely to be emotionally devastated by whatever decisions are made.
And the play consists almost entirely of them telling us this, in a string of soliloquies and extended speeches to each other or to their respective confidantes. They are good speeches, Alan Hollinghurst's new translation achieving both clarity and eloquence, and the director has guided her cast to making us believe that the characters believe and feel all they are saying.
Stephen Campbell Moore as Titus develops the most interesting characterisation, finding in the words and the situation a little man really out of his depth in the passions he is feeling and has inspired in his beloved. There is just the slightest hint of comedy in the way he tries to avoid making his decision or confronting Berenice, his wavering between love and glory evidence both of an essentially nice man and of one who would really be happier if someone else made his choices for him.
Dominic Rowan's Antiochus fits more comfortably in the heroic mode, the hopeless lover having the strength to accept his fate with dignity and even able to retain his composure when the waffling of the others means that the prize repeatedly seems to come within his grasp only to be withdrawn again.
As Berenice Anne-Marie Duff either has less to work with or has been less able to find complexities to her character, because she spends most of the play either uncomplicatedly in love or uncomplicatedly heartbroken. Only in the final scene, as it is left for Berenice to find a tragic resolution (and not the one you might expect), does the actress show us more to the character than the passively emotion-driven woman.
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