I admit that I have often wondered what the fuss is about regarding Racine. “Do you like Shakespeare, but just wish it was more opaque?” The performance of Iphégenie at the Cloître de Carmes this season didn’t help heal the divide between the 17th century playwright and me. His icy touch to characters in life and death situations seems unforgivably inhuman. What’s more, this seeming indifference isn’t shown as a character flaw, but as royal virtue. Valorizing passivity is antithetical to what modern circumstances demand. “Why Racine?” is simply a question that has dogged me since I first studied the artist in theatre history. Frédéric Fage’s sublimely cast and stately Bérénice, in performance at 14:00 at the Théâtre du Balcon, is the introduction I have been waiting for.
Bérénice features stakes of the “not life or death” variety that Iphégenie desperately needed. Emperor Titus is in love with the Queen of Palestine, Bérénice. With his father newly dead, it’s expected that they’re free to marry. Antiochus, a king, also wants to marry Bérénice. Word gets to Titus that the people aren’t a fan of his marrying a foreigner. He “nobly” decides to break off their relationship. Bérénice, refusing the renewed advances of Anitochus, leaves the palace.
Hugo Miard and Amandine Rousseau ably perform their roles as confidants to the royals. They are omnipresent and take seriously the well being of those they assist. Pascal Parsat, often lit in sharp chiaroscuro by Olivier Oudiou’s smart lighting, brilliantly presents the discipline of nobility. I initially expected to find Benjamin Lhommas loathsome in the role of a man forced to choose between love or country. In truth, he offers an emotional clarity to the play. It is on him to decide the outcome of the crisis, and he offers the emotional burden, which results from the uncertainty in power. His romance isn't sticky and self-important, but fiery and all consuming. Lastly, Estelle Roedrer commands the stage as Bérénice. She tackles Bérénice’s tension between emotionally vulnerability and noble decorum with grandeur.
Fage has an undeniably elegant mise en scène. The only thing inhibiting Bérénice is circumstance. His simple scenography of white sheets doesn’t undermine the performance. However, it does tantalize with promises of something grander. I look forward to seeing his work unfettered by the space sharing austerity of The Avignon Off. As is, every artistic gesture smacks of good taste and clarity. I am grateful for this much-needed introduction to the virtues of Racine, and the artists who know how to execute them.
Bérénice is in performance at the Théâtre du Balcon at 14:00