Berenice by Jean Racine, in this new production at the Donmar Warehouse, should have been a triumph: Anne-Marie Duff is an actor of rare emotional truth, director Josie Rourke is responsible for some of the most vibrant productions of the last few years and leading men Stephen Campbell Moore and Dominic Rowan are always a joy to watch. In the end, the production is a more tentative effort, some times uncertain, some times tender, which only finds its real power and focus in the last half hour of the play.
The major problem with the production is the design: breathtaking to look at (a wooden bridge overseeing sand dunes and wooden passages) it plays havoc with the performances: walking on sand is tricky, it’s hardly ever graceful and the actors often play emotional scenes off balance (not in a good way). The long wooden bridge takes time to navigate, choices are restricted and certain scenes lose momentum.
Another problem is the text itself. I don’t know much about Jean Racine‘s work or 17th century French drama but Alan Hollinghurst‘s version evokes neither the poetry of the original or the immediacy of modern drama. Actors are often left battling with the text instead of savouring it.
As a result, the production takes a long time to find its footing. The story, a love triangle between Titus, Berenice and Antiochus (or is the City of Rome the third party?), gains focus when Titus needs to make choices that tear at his heart. It’s his struggle that gives the play its soul. Titus combines power, kindness, honour and it’s the kind of role that could look too earnest and stale but Stephen Campbell Moore, impressively, makes him charismatic and heartfelt. Berenice is the woman in love, her only desire to be with the man she adores. It could have been a thankless role but Anne-Marie Duff, in a gorgeous red dress, gives her grace, clarity and intelligence. In the intimate space of the Donmar, the intensity of her thoughts write on her face thrillingly. Dominic Rowan fares less well. His movement and presence felt awkward, the tone of his performance misjudged. Saddled with an unflattering costume that did nothing for the character or the setting, he seemed isolated and from a different play.
The production will improve, and probably transform, as the run progresses and has enough heart and memorable moments to make it worth seeing. But I can’t help but feel it’s less than the sum of its parts.