Alan Hollinghurst's new translation of Racine's tragedy of unfulfilled passion Berenice opened at the Donmar Warehouse this week (2 October 2012).

The play recounts the tragic love story of the Roman emperor Titus and Berenice of Cilicia. Unable to rectify his duty as emperor with his love for a foreign queen, Titus is forced to choose between love and responsibility. Meanwhile Antiochus, Titus’ best friend, is sent to comfort her, but reveals his own unrequited love for Berenice.

The cast features Anne-Marie Duff, Dominic Rowan, Stephen Campbell Moore, Nigel Cooke, Kurt Egyiawan, Derek Howard and Rosie Jones. Directed by Josie Rourke, Berenice runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November.

Theo Bosanquet
Whatsonstage.com

Designer Lucy Osborne has given the Donmar a dramatic makeover… The stage is formed of sand, which cascades from the ceiling in spotlit streams and creates an immediate ‘wow’ factor… The text is given full room to breathe and the trio navigate the many shifts in mood with surety and poise. Where Rourke’s production falls down is in the use of a sweeping spiral staircase as its primary entrance and exit point… But there are some fine performances to be witnessed amid such distractions; Duff makes further claim to being one of our finest tragic heroines, while Rowan and Moore bring a welcome lightness of touch to a play filled with the tension of unrequited love and the soul-searching of a man who makes the very unmodern gesture of putting duty before pleasure. 

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard
★★

There are handsome performances in this new version of Jean Racine’s seventeenth-century French classic, with Anne-Marie Duff especially strong in the title role…Duff conveys the fragility of Berenice and her radiant elegance…Meanwhile Dominic Rowan suggests the weakness of Antiochus and at the same time his credibility as a suitor, and Stephen Campbell Moore does a good job of communicating the indecisive yet fundamentally noble nature of Titus. Lucy Osborne’s set is at first impressive…But the sand and the staircase both inhibit the actors’ movement. The human aspects of the play, which can be lost amid the stately architecture of Racine’s long speeches, come across well. Yet director Josie Rourke’s clear, carefully bleak production seems modern in tone without feeling urgent or dynamic.

Michael Billington
Guardian
★★

…Hollinghurst's translation, swapping Racine's rhyming alexandrine couplets for blank verse, avoids that by rendering the play in clear, simple language…Anne-Marie Duff…strips Berenice of fluting grandeur…Instead of blistering rhetoric, Duff gives us recognisable human emotion. Stephen Campbell Moore takes the same approach to Titus…Dominic Rowan also plays Antiochus as a good man living in a world of illusion and Nigel Cooke as Titus's sidekick embodies the inflexible Roman virtues. I was, admittedly, a bit puzzled by Lucy Osborne's design, which, with its sand-filled surface and a winding staircase apparently made of chairs, suggested we were in for a mix of Beckett and Ionesco. But one soon learns to adjust to it, and the evening, as a whole, is quietly compelling…

Charles Spencer
Telegraph
★★

...Berenice is a play that doesn’t exactly grip…Nor does Josie Rourke’s uncharacteristically heavy-handed production help. For some reason she has turned Titus’s Roman palace into a large sandpit…There is also a modern staircase that looks as if it has been assembled from a gigantic Ikea flatpack though the characters wear the costumes of ancient Rome. Few actresses do anguished better than Anne-Marie Duff and she gets to do a lot of it here...All of this would work more effectively if Stephen Campbell Moore didn’t give such a plodding and curiously sexless performance as her beloved Titus. Dominic Rowan is far more charismatic and fit as the spurned Antiochus…I can only conclude that I must be allergic to Racine.

Libby Purves
Times
★★

…Directed by Josie Rourke at a straight 100 minutes and, bizarrely, set on sand, beneath a sort of Escher staircase made of ladderback chairs…Hollinghurst’s verse is, to say the least, patchy. There are some nice metaphors…but the more banal iambics tend to jangle, becoming at times almost soporific once the basic dilemma has been clarified…Anne-Marie Duff as the heroine is terrific: dignified, hollow-eyed and weary, maturely in love, she speaks the lines with all available beauty, and her perfectly judged emotional reactions during the men’s long, windy speeches are a marvel…