When an audience titters at a tragedy, it's usually a sign that something isn't quite right, either in the text, the acting or the production. I hesitate to give a definitive verdict on what's amiss with this production of a Racine tragedy at the Donmar, but it never quite gets into top gear.
Unlike most Racine plays, this one ends in renunciation rather than death; the love triangle between Antiochus, Berenice and Titus is resolved by separation rather than suicide or murder. But the essential story of a conflict between politics and love is familiar. Some say that doing Racine in English is next to impossible; the power of the playwright lies above all in his spare use of language, hammered into neat alexandrines. In the original French, language and metre become almost a prison for the actors, within which they remain locked with no means of escape, a cage in which they batter themselves senseless.
But I can recall at least two excellent productions of Racine's plays in London, notably Phedre at the National Theatre with Helen Mirren and Britannicus with Sian Thomas at Wilton's Music Hall. Racine in English can keep the audience spellbound if the words, direction and acting are right. If this production by Josie Rourke fails to catch fire, the fault certainly doesn't lie with Anne-Marie Duff in the title role, who delivers a mesmerising performance. She conveys with heartbreaking intensity Berenice's despair at learning Titus is going to cast her away for political reasons. Stephen Campbell Moore as the dithering Titus and Dominic Rowan as Antiochus aren't quite in the same class. While Phedre was translated by Ted Hughes and Britannicus by Timberlake Wertenbaker, the task of turning Berenice into English has fallen to the novelist Alan Hollinghurst. His blank verse is highly formal, sometimes archaic and Victorian in its phrasing. 'How baleful an encounter!' and 'I remain to incommode your sight' give a flavour of the style, which echoes Racine without ever capturing his taut phrasing and power. Somehow in this production the formal language and the informal gestures and body language don't quite match up. There's a nicely designed modernist set by Lucy Osborne, consisting mostly of a sandpit across which the characters pace up and down and on which they fall on their knees. But the intense power of Racine at his best is only rarely present.