Thursday, 15 November 2012

Racine's Berenice at the Donmar: Excruciatingly Funny


We giggled. Sometimes uncontrollably. Especially whenever Dominic Rowan as Antiochus was making his particularly inane observations on the action--whatever little there was of it. Was he channeling, I wondered, that other Rowan? My theatre buddy (Paola) and I are perhaps the harshest critics in theatre-going London, but last night we were not alone. Much of the audience was laughing, and often, throughout this production at the Donmar of Racine's Berenice, starring Anne-Marie Duff as the Queen of Palestine, with a new translation by Alan Hollinghurst. Just to be clear: we were not meant to be laughing. Racine is emphatically not Shakespeare. He's a one-note kind of guy. Hamlet is one of the funniest tragedies ever written, but it's meant to be. The audience last night was laughing but not because the play itself was funny--far from it. As I sat in the intimate and renowned-for-excellence theater watching members of the audience stifle laughter, yawns, whisper to each other, cough, fidget, stare back at me, I tried to identify what was wrong. My conclusion was everything. The set: a "modern" geometrical, spiraling staircase with a bridge that looked like it might collapse at any moment. It resembled something found on a dilapidated housing estate built in the eighties. This was supposed to represent ancient Rome? And what was that inexplicable pile of sand? Last I checked Rome was not located in the desert. The costumes: they looked like they were thrown together last minute for a "Roman Night" fancy dress party in someone's flat on the housing estate. Berenice's sparkly, red, one-shoulder strap dress with a slit up the side, a bargain a few years ago at M&S. The play: a limp love triangle written by a humorless pedant who defiantly rejects subplot or subtext. The translation: the attempt to make Racine's posturing "accessible" renders it risible. The acting: I love Anne-Marie Duff and I think she did what she could but it was as if each of the three actors thought he or she was in a different play. Duff was in an ancient Greek production, Rowan was spoofing formal French tragedy of yore, Stephen Campbell Moore was in an "updated" version in which his Titus had just completed a "sensitive man" training in how to let your girlfriend down easy: stutter a lot, keep your voice so soft as not to be heard, earnestly make her understand that his decision to dump her is in her best interest, hurts him more than it hurts her etc. The direction: the buck stops here. Josie Rourke's direction is so indecisive she has left everyone suspended in ever shifting versions and interpretations of the play. That sounds kind of pomo and edgy but if that was her intention it was not achieved. There's nothing more dreadful than trying for pomo and edgy and missing the mark. The version of Berenice we saw was the unintended comedy. I never will pass up the chance to laugh, but being made to laugh when you know you're not supposed to be laughing is actually rather excruciating for all. 

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