The emotions aren’t all that prove lethal in “1953”; try the play itself. In adapting and updating Racine’s 1667 “Andromaque,” poet Craig Raine mutates the innate rigor of neo-classical French alexandrines into a language at once highbrow and lowdown. Allied to sentences that might make for a camp classic if the cast would only loosen up –“I want you to eviscerate your rival,” says the vengeful Princess Ira (Emma Fielding) — is a “what if?” — style plot rife with fascist chic.
The Almeida is to be applauded for continuing to trawl a generally neglected repertoire, but “1953” joins its last play, Victor Hugo’s “The Tower,” on the list of adventuresome choices one would happily never see again. That the company includes Fielding and Adam Kotz –distinguished National alumni of “Arcadia” and “Racing Demon,” respectively — makes the going particularly glum. Then again, what would you do with an opening gambit like, “Look, Klaus, I’ll be blunt,” not to mention the Howard Barker-like “Morals turn to so much mucous in your crotch”?
In Raine’s revisionist hand, Racine’s play has been advanced from the aftermath of the Trojan War to post-WWII Rome and the Mussolini Palace. The real surprise: The Allies have lost the war, and Germany and Italy — heaven knows how — jointly rule. The widowed Andromaque is now one Annette LeSkye (Pooky Quesnel), whose imprisoned 8-year-old son — a claimant to the British throne — surveys the emotional wreckage from atop Vicki Mortimer’s set, which itself represents a last word of sorts in forbidding dictatorial decor.
Annette is wooed by Mussolini’s son Vittorio (Jason Isaacs), King of Italy and this play’s Pyrrhus equivalent, who in turn is betrothed to Fielding’s scheming Princess. She finds a murderous ally in the newly arrived Klaus Maria von Orestes (Kotz), an envoy sent by Hitler to Rome to seize the young boy only to find himself in thrall to Ira. That she suffers from what seems like sinusitis — her pride, she says, is nothing compared with “snot leaking”– hardly matters amid a rondelay of overt sexual desire presumably intended to contrast with the heightened sterility of the language. (“Polish up your other sword,” barks Ira, letting her sword drift across Orestes’ crotch.)
Raine’s rhetoric is high-flown to a fault and then suddenly down and dirty, as if to prove these are real people, too, even if they do pose rhetorical questions about Hegelian dialectic. The effect de-eroticizes a scenario already lacking in the elegant compression of Racine who, in the best productions, communicates untold reserves of passion.
That Isaacs isn’t beefy enough for someone described as “toxic with testosterone” is the least of the cast’s problems. Far worse is the limbo they occupy between a genuinely elevated discourse and any recognizable longing and fury. By play’s end, a hard-working company seems paralyzed by doubt about how even to stand, which suggests “1953” is less a literary jape than a wayward exercise in posture.