As Mussolini's granddaughter was failing to follow in Il Duce's goosesteps in the Italian elections, his son was cropping up in Craig Raine's adaptation of Racine's Andromaque.
Raine updates the action from the Trojan war to a Rome in which the Axis powers have just won the Second World War. King Vittorio Mussolini issues an ultimatum to captive British noblewoman Annette Leskye (a.k.a. Andromaque): become his queen, or her young son will be extradited to Germany in a "sealed compartment". While Annette agonises, the King's jilted fiancée contrives Vittorio's assassination by her former lover, Count Klaus Maria von Orestes.
The plot is familiar; so are the uniforms. The juxtaposition makes trenchant comment upon the Axis régime's appropriation of classical grandeur and their thuggish reality. Less harmonious is Raine's writing. Undecided whether to give primacy to the poetry or the drama, he hobbles and knots his verse. Occasionally it erupts in a purple pustule, like Ranjit Bolt without the panache. (Should young Angus be tortured before he's dispatched? "To beat or not to beat? Sorry...")
Raine's uncertainty communicates itself to the actors, who are caught between language and plot, generally lacking the experience to combine them. Matthew Thompson's Orestes is a callow sixth-form Richard E. Grant whose final insanity is simply irksome. As his beloved Princess Ira, Jacinta Stringer also muffs the decline towards suicide, falling into eye-popping and hand-flexing. Victoria Lennox's Annette is the production's anchor. Lennox captures the dignity in subjection, the principle and the suffering, and she knows how to play a studio: flickers of emotion pass over her face like tiny clouds, where some of her colleagues might hazard a spasm.
Director Katharine Rogers shows a coherent and thoughtful vision of the play, but mostly the script is both more and less than her company can carry.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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