Berenice

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Berenice
© Johan Persson
Anne-Marie Duff (Berenice), Stephen Campbell Moore (Titus)

Since taking over the Donmar Warehouse from Michael Grandage, Josie Rourke has gently but firmly put her mark on London's numero uno boutique theatre: more comedies, more British plays, better ticket accessibility for the general public, fewer big name actors.

This latest production, however, is a straight up throwback to the Grandage era: an exquisitely translated new version of a moody European classic with an exquisite set and an exquisite cast led by 'Shameless' and 'Accused' star Anne Marie-Duff. Which is all tickety boo on paper, but somehow Rourke's production of French playwright Racine's 1670 tragedy 'Berenice' feels less than the sum of its considerable parts.

Racine crafted a set of impossibly majestic characters who spoke in long, florid passages of rhyming oratory. But in Alan Hollinghurst's new version the novelist puts a more intimate spin on the love triangle between first century Roman Emperor Titus (Stephen Campbell Moore), his eponymous mistress (Duff) and his friend and her erstwhile lover Antiochus (Dominic Rowan). Hollinghurst's blank verse is clear and crisp and his use of dialogue humanises the characters in a way that Racine's rhetorical passages do not.

But it also pushes things into melodramatic territory. Like an Ophelia caught between two dithering Hamlets, Duff's Berenice gradually finds her will to live sapped by Titus's umm-ing and ahh-ing over whether or not he should marry her in defiance of public opinion. Meanwhile Antiochus stands on the sidelines, hoping that if he waits around for long enough, Berenice will come back to him.

Moore is initially very appealing as a vulnerable Titus. But after an hour and 40 minutes of one of the most powerful men who has ever lived softly boo hooing over the burdens of duty I really wanted to give him a slap. Rourke's production becomes mired in Titus's self-pity and Antiochus's prevarication, which became so overwrought as to elicit audience titters in the later stages.

Duff, of course, is fantastic: her feelings radiate dazzlingly from every pore, and her unguarded journey from love for Titus to devastation then scornful wrath at his rejection provides Rourke's production with most of its emotional firepower. But Berenice is a reactive part: you desperately want Duff to seize the initiative, but instead she is trapped between Titus's flip flopping whims.

There are many impressive things about Rourke's production, not least Lucy Osbourne's richly evocative set, in which trickles of sand fall ceaselessly from the eaves onto a featureless sandy floor – it seems to point to the ultimate transience of Titus's empire. But for all the gorgeous details, Duff's performance is the only note of earthiness in an evening of lachrymose longueurs.

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