A career-launching success for the 27-year-old Racine when first performed in 1667, the play is notoriously convoluted, but definitely in a good way. In the aftermath of the Trojan War, Hector’s widow Andromaque and her young son Astyanax are prisoners of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, but Pyrrhus is causing a scandal, having fallen in love with his captive, allowing her to raise her son and delaying his own marriage to Hermione, daughter of King Menalaus of Sparta. The victorious Greeks, understandably anxious that the last scion of the Trojan race should have found a refuge within one of their own kingdoms, have sent their ambassador Oreste to sort things out. But Oreste has always held bit of a torch for Hermione...
The tragedy that follows is propelled by a rather unfortunate chain of unrequited affection: Oreste loves Hermione, who loves Pyrrhus, who loves Andromaque, who is still ferociously loyal to the memory of her dead husband Hector. The resulting intertwining patterns of indecision, passion, rage and despair make for searing, elegant drama so nail-biting as to be almost a parody of itself. A number of lines in this production are played unashamedly for laughs, and it’s a testament to the stunning dialogue, strong individual performances and the majestic irony at play here that this isn’t jarring in the least. Tragedy it remains, however, insisting throughout on the implacable nature of human desires; ending in blood, ruin and madness.
The setting is stark and more or less modern. There’s a suitable wartime theme in the costumes, with the men in military uniform and the women in forties-style dresses of varying elegance. It’s not overdone and it does help to evoke the atmosphere of post-conflict twitchiness which catapults the ambassador Oreste into this already fraught scenario. There are effective classical aspects to the acting, exaggerated gestures, expressions and pauses, Oreste (Xavier Boiffier) and Andromaque (Camille Cayol) are more in the classical mould, the former rather stiff and awkward as he crumbles through genteel bewilderment into madness, the latter driven alternately by grief and fury; they are archetypes of the suffering they portray. Pyrrhus and Hermione, in contrast, seem much more modern; human, calculating, not very cuddly but all too understandable. It’s a pleasing blend of period and contemporary, a subtle showcase for a play which strips humanity down to the bare essentials.
Any negative points were mainly to do with the language barrier: I couldn’t hear the actors as well as I’d have liked, unless they were right at the front of the stage. Admittedly this might not have mattered if my French were perfect, but if you’re going to tour a French play in Britain you can’t expect a full audience of bilinguals. It is, unfortunately, not really a production for the ‘holiday’ French -speaker, or at least not for one who isn’t fore-armed with a fairly sound knowledge of the play - the one I brought with me had to leave sheepishly after the first half. Part of the problem is the otherwise effective staging; the presence of characters onstage who weren’t actually part of the current scene, and the calculated anonymity of the almost uniform black and white costumes made it difficult, when reading the surtitles, to be certain who was speaking on stage.
All that said, I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from giving it a go for any reason – it’s a fabulous play and a great production, fluid, comic, clever and elegant.