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A CurtainUp London Review
The French are said to honour intellectuals more highly than the British so when reviewing French plays from the 17th century, the high neo-classical tragedies of Racine have no equivalent in 17th century England. Although I studied one at school when I took French A level, performances by Racine on the London stage are a relative rarity and this is the first time we have been invited to review Berenice although Phedre, Britannicus and Andromaque are seen more frequently.
"Titus reginam Berenicen, cui etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur, statim ab Urbe dimisit invitus invitam." Racine translates this as, "Titus, who passionately loved Berenice and who was widely thought to have promised to marry her, sent her from Rome, in spite of himself and in spite of herself, in the early days of his empire." This one line from historian Suetonius seems to have inspired the playwright to write the story of Vespasian’s son Titus (Stephen Campbell Moore) who, after his father’s death, cast off Berenice (Anne Marie Duff) his lover and widely expected to become his wife, when advisors told him that the vox populi would be set against such a match and that the Roman Empire could be threatened by rebellion and break up. Berenice was the daughter of Herod Agrippa, a queen of Palestine, and one of the states “absorbed” by Rome. Nigel Cooke plays Titus’s advisor, Paulinus, who coldly recommends that the imperial bed of Rome should not be sullied by someone whose sister married a man who had once been a slave.
Booker prize winner for The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst has penned this blank verse translation of the 1670 century play which was criticised at the time for its lack of action. His translation has a wonderfully graphic description of Vespasian’s funeral, the crowds and the burning of the funeral pyre before Berenice is aware of the significance to her situation of the death of the emperor. It is a love triangle because another of Berenice’s admirers is Antiochus (Dominic Rowan), close friend and supporter of Titus. So agony all round. Antiochus loves Berenice but she doesn’t love him; Berenice loves Titus but he cannot marry her; Titus loves Berenice but thinks his duty to the Empire is more important. It is very strange to the Anglo Saxon way of thinking that rulers should be allowed to make love matches, certainly in the 17th century, as in government and kingdoms, political matches come before romantic ones. Even in the 20th century a prince would take a wife and yet keep his mistress.
Lucy Osborne’s set is majestic. There are piles of sand representing the desert and sand falling continuously symbolising the delicate foundations of the Roman Empire and its impending fall. A staircase is suspended, arching across the stage like Bauhaus cream painted chairs continuously attached to each other and when the characters talk about Berenice and she is not onstage, they look up to the left to where her quarters supposedly are.
Anne-Mare Duff is the abandoned queen, barefoot and dressed in a gold and red robe on one shoulder, she is proud and loving and incredulous that her lover could desert her. She conveys real sorrow in her expression as she confides in her woman servant Phenice (Rosie Jones). Stephen Campbell Moore plays Titus with a rather feckless and listless air, quite clear as to why he will not marry Berenice. Titus says of this, “vile spectacle of the slavery of love.” He is an emperor without gumption and we find it hard to know why Berenice loves him and still less understand her love soaked description, “Even if his lineage was obscure, the world would know his greatness at a glance.” Dominic Rowan is Antiochus the messenger who gets shot by Berenice and who isn’t believed but whom we do credit is passionately in love with her. Antiochus describes his own roller coaster ride as he is spurned and despised by the object of his affection, “from fear to hope, from hope to rage.” The ending will not be one of gore, murder or and suicide but renunciation, an emotional desert to reflect the set.
Hollinghurst’s blank verse translation makes Racine accessible as opposed to those interminable speeches in French, but somehow Berenice’s love story seems one sided and unsympathetic even in Josie Rourke’s capable hands.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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