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Review: Sand and Sandals produced a mixed Berenice

114098175_bernice_341913cJosie Rourke's latest offering at the Donmar Warehouse had me weeping and it wasn't because I got sand in my eye - there is a lot of sand in this production.

But crying at a tragic love story is a good thing right? Well yes but it was in spite of many things and testament to some wonderful moments.

Jean Racine's story, in a translation by Alan Hollinghurst, is a tale of quiet passion and emotion rather than of high drama. As @Polyg commented, had Shakespeare written it, it would have ended very differently and I like it for that.

Berenice (Anne-Marie Duff) is the long-time lover of Titus (Stephen Campbell Moore) who'd been forbidden to marry her by his father. When his father dies and he succeeds as Emporer it looks like the two will finally get up the aisle. The problem is Berenice is a foreign queen and Titus risks earning the wrath of his people by marrying.

Meanwhile Titus and Berenice's friend Antiochus (Dominic Rowan) is secretly in love with Berenice and decides to confess to her before she is lost forever to his love rival.

The story is played out on a spectacular set. Aside from a couple of light wooden chairs and some broken pieces of fencing  there is what I can only describe as a delicate flying staircase. It has a spiral at one end then bridges across the stage before sweeping down in a curve of steps.

And then there is the sand which not only pours down, in several streams, from somewhere high up in the lighting rigs before the play starts but also covers most of the stage.

One of the side blocks in the stalls has been removed to make way for a rocky looking outcrop that isn't used by the actors as those sat above in the circle wouldn't be able to see them.  The seats have been reconstructed at what was the back of the stage - first time I've seen that done at the Donmar.

Against all this the play didn't get off to a great start. Dominic Rowan's first soliloquy was a little awkward and stiff for someone who is musing on his own feelings in solitude. Maybe his unflattering costume didn't help or it might just have been the difficulty of maintaining poise and regal elegance (he is a prince after all) while walking through sand with sandals on.

He didn't, however, shirk when it came to showing the depth of his feelings when rejected by Berenice. In fact it was at these moments of his despair and those between Berenice and Titus when emotions felt so raw and moving. At times, the sense of sorrow emanating from each character sat so heavy, even in their absence fro the stage, it was almost choking.

Anne-Marie Duff's Berenice is strong and elegant but also warm and certainly worthy of drawing such deep affection from two different men.

Campbell Moore was equally convincing as the Emporer torn between love and duty but he too had a few sand problems.

Essentially the sand became a distraction and an annoyance probably for the actors as much as the audience. Berenice stumbled at least twice and Titus, had one knee start to slide down a slight slope during a crucial, emotional scene. It gave the play a tension that shouldn't have been there.

So to sum up, some wonderful acting in a play that takes a while to get going on a beautiful and impractical set. Give it a week or two and I'm sure the actors will have grown more use to sand getting into their sandals and how best to walk but I do wonder why production designers do it to them.

It's getting 4 stars from me. Berenice runs at the Donmar Warehouse until Nov 24.

You can read more of Poly's views over on her blog.