Racine is a playwright considerably easier to admire than to love. The stylistic and tonal formality of the 17th century French tragedian’s plays are routinely regarded as more forbidding than theatrically forthcoming. So it’s to helmer Josie Rourke’s considerable credit that her calm, controlled production of “Berenice” banishes ascetic high-seriousness. The downside is that removing the fierce chill of austerity diminishes the cumulative power of Racine’s triangular portrait of love vs. duty.
A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in one act by Jean Racine in a new version by Alan Hollinghurst. Directed by Josie Rourke. Sets and costumes, Lucy Osborne; lighting, Oliver Fenwick; sound, Emma Laxton; music, Michael Bruce; movement, Ann Yee; production stage manager, Joni Carter. Opened, reviewed Oct. 2, 2012. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.
Using a careful succession of long, formal speeches, the 1670 play focuses purely on the dilemma faced by Berenice, queen of Palestine (Anne-Marie Duff), who is loved by both the new Roman Emperor Titus (Stephen Campbell Moore) and the latter’s best friend, Antiochus (Dominic Rowan).
And that’s it. Not even a subplot. The sole trigger for action is Titus’ decision, made early, not to upset his people by marrying a foreigner. Love must be abandoned. Attempting to ease all heartbreak, he asks Antiochus to break the news to Berenice, unaware of the feelings this unleashes in his decent, upstanding friend. The responsibility of breaking Titus’ news initially galvanizes Antiochus toward action, but he is held back by both protocol and self-doubt.
The progress of the tragedy is the patient telling of the devastating effect that the denial of love has on all three participants. Thus, with Racine stripping everything away except text, the quality of translation is key. Man Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst’s scrupulous new version is suitably poetic but not overblown.
Taking his neat replacement of Racine’s French Alexandrine verse form with the more familiar pattern of Shakespearean pentameter as her guide, Rourke helms a production that is remarkably approachable. Instead of displays of high emoting — the sort of thing that tends to pass for acting but isn’t — she elicits performances remarkable for their restraint. Devastated by the sacrifice of their love, these are characters driven to states of high emotion, but no one resorts to empty display.
That’s clearest in Duff’s steady Berenice, who has status but not hauteur. That choice allows her feelings to register across her expressive face but not to overflow. Tears spring to her eyes, but she never tips over into the self-indulgence of sobbing. Instead, she uses the energy of the pain to drive through careful speeches itemizing the horrors of her plight.
She’s matched by a very fine Campbell Moore, who has an even harder task. Playing a man consumed by duty at the expense of revealing his feelings, his opportunities for sympathy are fewer. When they arrive, however, they have true resonance thanks to his calm authority. His weight is balanced by Rowan’s nicely unneurotic Antiochus, whose outward resignation belies inner confusion.
The discretion of their performances — plus a nicely direct Arsace from Kurt Egyiawan — is particularly impressive given the elevation and scale elicited by Lucy Osborne’s abstract set design. An elevated walkway with sweeping stairs at either end bestrides a stage formed of sculpted sand.
All that, plus the intimacy created by turning the Donmar into an in-the-round space, make the pain unusually palatable. Yet those choices collectively lower the stakes. Berenice’s journey to an extraordinarily staunch final acceptance of fate should create an overwhelming sense of loss. That visceral thrill is missing. Racine’s singular writing works via ice-cold fire. Ironically, despite the fervent warmth of Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, the production lacks heat.