Xavier Boiffer, Vincent de Bouard, Camille Cayol, Romain Cottard, Christophe Gregoire, Camille Japy, Cecille Leterme, Mathieu Spinosi, Benedicte Wenders
Declan Donnellan has taken what sounded like a potentially arid prospect Racine performed in the original French and turned it into a passionate, compelling production, controlled yet emotionally raw, a masterful exercise in tension.
The play is set amid the aftermath of the Trojan War. Hector is dead and his widow Andromaque and her young son, Astyanax, are being held by Achilles’s son, Pyrrhus.
Though he is promised to Hermione, Pyrrhus falls for the captive Andromaque, while Hermione is pursued with equal vigor by Orestes. The mood from the outset is fraught and charged with emotion, with mother love, thwarted desire and potent, poison-tipped jealousy.
Staged in conjunction with Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, this Cheek by Jowl production takes place on a bare black stage. The play is performed in French with English surtitles projected rather too high above the actors’ heads for comfortable reading (the constant need to flick one’s eyes upwards is at first quite distracting, but the audience soon gets used to it).
The only props are a row of chairs which are rearranged when necessary. The costumes are 20th century and mainly black with the exception of a glorious flowing white wedding gown. This absence of visual clutter, this pared down staging, allows the emotional drive of the play to dominate. With pivotal scenes battles, deaths usually occurring off-stage and the characters conversing in unrelenting tirades, Racine is often seen as hard work, but in the hands of Donnellan and in the mouths of the French cast, Racine’s couplets, his lengthy speeches, become stirring and alive; pace and movement meanwhile is injected by having the actors frequently dash across the back of the stage.
The minimalist aesthetic means that small things, little details a slapped face, an anguished cry become heightened in their potency as Donnellan steers this tainted quartet elegantly towards the inevitably bloody fall out.
The production is superbly performed, particularly by the two female leads, both playing complex, conflicted women. Camille Japy’s Hermione is regal and icy yet not without heart while Camille Cayol conveys Andromaque’s utter determination that her son shall not face his father’s fate and her resulting willingness to do whatever is necessary. They are ably supported by Xavier Boiffer, as the tormented Orestes, who is so desperate to win Hermione that he allows himself to be pushed too far, and by Christophe Gregoire as Pyrrhus, whose desire steers him towards dangerous waters.
It cannot help but end messily and the final scenes are completely, edge-of-seat gripping, as bitter Hermione pleads with Orestes to slay Pyrrhus and then recoils when she realises what she has done. The accompanying shower of wedding confetti slowly turning from white to deathbed red is a near perfect visual gesture, simple yet devastating.