Designer Lucy Osborne has given the Donmar a dramatic makeover for this new production of Racine’s Roman tragedy Berenice. The stage is formed of sand, which cascades from the ceiling in spotlit streams and creates an immediate ‘wow’ factor.
Racine’s five-act saga - running in Alan Hollinghurst’s new version at a brisk hour and 45 straight-through - centres on the dilemma of Emperor Titus who is torn between his love for Palestinian Queen Berenice and his duty to the people of Rome, who expect him to marry a Roman.
Further complication comes in the form of Antiochus, Titus’ friend who harbours his own designs on Berenice but finds himself in the rather undignified position of go-between.
The big draw in Josie Rourke’s production is Anne-Marie Duff in the central role and, dressed in a sultry red dress with an Angelina Jolie-esque split up one leg, she certainly lives up to the billing with an assured and sensuous rendition.
And she’s surrounded by able sparring partners in the sand-strewn arena in the form of Stephen Campbell Moore’s earnest Titus and Dominic Rowan’s almost comically lovelorn Antiochus. 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. Not only does this hamper sightlines in the reconfigured four-sided space, but it bleeds tension from the scene changes, placing a brake on the dramatic momentum. Although it affords Duff a memorable first entrance, beyond this, much like the sand, it proves visually striking but practically unhelpful.
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.