Thoughts on the rehearsed reading of Racine’s Bajazet, Donmar Warehouse

I love rehearsed readings. Perfect little pleasures especially if I am darting across London mid afternoon to catch one while everyone else is toiling away in offices. Last Wednesday (October 31st, Halloween no less), the Donmar Warehouse, in celebration of their current production of Berenice, held a special reading of Bajazet, another Racine play translated by Alan Hollinghurst. As it’s often the case with rehearsed readings, the cast was a theatre producer’s wet dream: Hayley Atwell as Roxanne, Alex Jennings as Acomat, James McAvoy as Bajazet, Ruth Negga as Atalide, Rosie Jones as Zatime, Georgina Rich as Zaire and Kurt Egyiawan as Osmin. Under the direction of Josie Rourke, the afternoon was a very special treat indeed.

The play is the story of Bajazet, brother (and prisoner) to the turkish king, who responds to the advances of Roxanne, the king’s wife, in order to stay alive. In the hotbed and dangerous atmosphere of a turkish harem in the 17th century, Atalide, his real love, both encourages and resents him and Acomat, the grand vizir, plots to advance his own cause. Needless to say, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Everyone is powerful enough to destroy others but powerless to command their own destiny.

Inevitably rehearsed readings are dominated by single moments and fleeting images: Alex Jennings’ hands (incredibly expressive, very beautiful), James McAvoy’s scottish accent (all turkish princes should speak in a glaswegian accent from now on), Hayley Atwell’s clipped vulnerability, Ruth Negga’s wonderfully open face. The play has a rat in a barrel feeling, and in many ways it feels more contemporary than it has any right to: people with no prospects walking on dead ends. In 1990 Almeida staged a production of the play although I am struggling to find more info about it. In 2008 BBC Radio 3 produced a radio version with Bertie Carvel as Bajazet and Michael Pennington as Acomat.

The Donmar Warehouse doesn’t often stage rehearsed readings and I definitely hope this is the first of many and they make a habit of it.

For another account of the reading, head over to revstan’s blog.

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