Berenice conforms to the governing rules of the ‘unities’ laid out by Aristotle, which require the play to be ‘coherent, a unified whole, within twenty-four hours, in the same residential space.’ Adhering to the ‘unity of time’ allows Racine to expose the detail of decision and indecision faced by the characters. In this new version, directed by Josie Rourke, Racine’s wish to construct theatre that went beyond mere entertainment is clearly upheld, and the story thrives.
In devotion to the unity of unchanging space, the set is an ambiguously located neutral ground, neither inside nor outside the palace. The set – designed by Lucy Osbourne – is stunning, and solidifies the genius of this production. The stage, which is set in the round, is covered in hills of undulating sand; four of five plumes of thinly sprinkled sand fall from above, dancing in the hazy yellow spotlights. A spiral staircase curves over the entire width of the stage and two chairs stand, their legs planted into the mounds of sand.
The sand, which could have become a distraction, could not stop the audience becoming completely engrossed by the story. Anne-Marie Duff plays Berenice, portraying beautifully the surrendered spirit of a woman in love. Duff carries a certain maturity and sophistication that is fitting to Berenice, a queen and a lover. Stephen Campbell Moore as Titus is physically dominating, yet his face gradually reveals a weariness. As the conflict within him rises, Moore lets it manifest in his body, dropping despairingly to his knees and succumbing to the weight of his guilt. The supporting actors compose themselves with the required neutrality and provide an essence of the Roman Empire that summons Titus into action, against his will and love for Berenice.
Racine purposely toys with the audience’s perception. We are introduced first to Dominic Rowan’s tender and reserved Antiochus, who tells us his love for Berenice, meaning we feel an initial empathy with him rather than with Titus. Rowan speaks very naturally, in contrast with a tendency among some others in the cast to sometimes sound rehearsed, although I felt this was more to do with Alan Hollinghurst’s translation than a failing of the actors. However, in general what is most striking about this translation is its lyrical success in spite of the language jump from French to English. Despite the piece being considerably shortened, Rourke retains the infamous soliloquies in which Racine so candidly allows the characters to speak of their emotions. While Berenice is a love story, it is not conventional in its telling of it. Similarly, while it teeters towards the devastation found in typical Greek tragedies, it swiftly veers away towards a cooler conclusion.
Berenice is running at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November. See the Donmar Warehouse website for more information and to book. Photo by Johan Persson.