Pembroke New Cellars, 7pm, until Sat 17th March
‘Andromaque’, as a play performed in the original French, is a unique event. Given Racine’s lofty place in the canon of French literature and the privileged status of this particular play within his oeuvre, this is an apposite introduction, invitingly staged in the cosily intimate setting of Pembroke New Cellars. The immediate difficulty to be encountered by many will be non-fluency in French, because apart from a robust scene by scene precis in the (free!) programme, there is little concession to those with less robust language skills. For these, it might be worthwhile to read the play beforehand.
The complex love quadrangle at the heart of ‘Andromaque’ gives the play a modern character distinct from its classical antecedents and this performance represents this competently. Sexual tension is amply present in the early acts; the interactions between Pyrrhus (Matei Jovanovic) and Andromaque (Laura Mingam) on the one hand, and Orestes (John Black) and Hermione (Judith Lebiez) on the other, bear the hallmarks of careful construction by Lebiez who also directs. One might even say they sizzle, and so they should – we need to believe the complex web of love, jealousy and duty felt by the protagonists, whether towards the living or the dead.
Subtlety is the name of the game here. The stage is bare and stark, but – and this cannot be praised too highly – elegant use was made of what there was. Receded curtains, which previously had taken on little importance, are pulled back for the denouement of the play, whilst the bench to stage left is used to great effect, especially in a particularly climactic scene in Act Four between Hermione and Pyrrhus. There we have another effective moment of subtlety: having traded insults and been accused of criminality, Pyrrhus prepares to leave by agitatedly fixing his (rather dapper) collar before re-tying his necktie. It is an understated moment of self-assertion which is carried off beautifully and puts the costuming – which depends on the tasteful cues of naval uniforms, long dresses and business suits – to good use.
The performances (including those of the excellent supporting cast) carry the weight of the tragic pathos very effectively, with stand-out turns by the two lead actresses Mingam and Lebiez. The latter’s ability to stare into the distance defiantly, yet transfixed in the throes of guilt, was captivating. Unfortunately, while all the actors are all more than competent, there is a noticeable gender divide: the male players are just less impressive. Jovanovic, as Pyrrhus, emphasises the Alexandrine rhyming couplets far beyond the call of duty, at least to my taste: it was quite distracting. Black does not quite seem to have enough stage presence to inhabit the role of Orestes. Yet the performances do come together to produce a few hours of palpable tragic feeling; one never thinks that the cast or crew have bitten off more than they can chew.
One is left, ultimately, with the power of Racine’s poetry and its convincingly tragic couplets, delightfully impossible in English: this production is a success.