Review: Bérénice, Donmar Warehouse

“Like sands through the hourglass…”

The quote above is not actually from Alan Hollinghurst’s new version of Racine’s 1670 play Bérénice, but to be honest, no lines from it stuck in my head long enough over a post-show drink for me to record them and thus we have Days of our Lives… The reason that that came into my mind is because the predominant image of Lucy Osborne’s striking design of Josie Rourke’s production is of streams of sand tumbling from the ceiling even as we enter the auditorium, which has been partially reconfigured into the round, with stalls right being shifted 45 degrees to where the stage usually is but the circle seats remaining where they are.

Bérénice has long been in love with Titus, but as she is a Palestinian queen and he is the new Emperor of Rome, theirs is not an easy romance. He decides to finally take her as his wife now that power is his but when he discovers that the Roman public are not that keen on the prospect of a foreign queen, Titus is forced to weigh his personal feelings against his imperial duties. He sends his best friend Antiochus to comfort Bérénice though it soon becomes apparent that he is also in love with her and so a tangle of pained feelings and unfulfilled passion plays out between the trio.

Hollinghurst’s novels have been a mainstay on my bookshelf since I was a teenager and I am a huge fan of his but I can’t say that I liked the text here. Racine’s Alexandrine meter has been replaced with an unrhymed pentameter that sometimes felt ungainly and even brutal, its heightened mood coming across as a little too stiff and artificial, as epitomised by Dominic Rowan’s opening expository speech to himself. Caveats about final previews aside, Rowan’s Antiochus was a big disappointment, all the more so for the strength of his recent turn in A Doll’s House. Here he was strangely emotionless, frequently feeling awkward and looking odd in a misjudged costume and a hairstyle that makes no concession to the period of the play. 

Stephen Campbell Moore fares better as Titus (and suits a beard very nicely) caught on the horns of his dilemma and connecting well with Anne-Marie Duff’s titular character. It is a welcome return to this intimate stage for Duff, whose presence often threatens to turn the play into something gripping. Her performance, another in a striking red dress, is measuredly impassioned and certainly accomplished but ultimately not enough to overcome the sterility of what should be the emotional drama.     

And though it looks remarkable, I’m not sure that Osborne’s design achieves that much. The timbered staircase looks impressive (if a little rickety) but is so inflexible that the tramping up and down it soon becomes repetitive; the conversion into the round isn’t really exploited in any discernible manner (although to be fair, it could have been – we just couldn’t see what, if anything, was happening in the newly found space under our circle seats!) and the playing space is consequently very limited; and even the shifting sands are ultimately exposed as a piece of theatrical excess rather than being imbued with meaning.

For a play and a production that is so stripped back, it was surprising to feel such a lack of emotional intensity all around and consequently it became something of a struggle to concentrate on, a feeling evidently shared by a fair few others around us. Truth be told, I haven’t liked that much of the Donmar’s output since Rourke took over and once again, I found myself at odds with her artistic vision – I just can’t see what this play brings to contemporary theatre.  

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 24th November

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