A tragedy in five acts, Jean Racine’s “Britannicus,” as directed by Max Kahn ’09, is a calculated exercise in silence, movement, sound and lighting.
There is always an enveloping silence, even when the characters are speaking. The scarcity of movement creates tension, but when it is present — as in the caress of a cheek, the holding of hands, the raising of an arm as in declamation — it heightens the dialogue’s dramatic quality. The clear sound of footsteps behind the stage works in a similar fashion. The lighting’s fade-ups and fade-downs, together with the use of color, recreate different times of day, including such details as moonlight.
The stage consists of a black floor; a shrub in a vase on either side; a black, wooden bench in the center; and a thin, vertical mirror in the background.
But although the stage is minimalist, the production is not. On the contrary, there is great attention to detail, such as the aforementioned lighting effects and the wardrobe that the characters wear, which is in the style of the Spanish Golden Age. Junie (Clare Wiles ’12), however, wears clothes from a slightly different period in order to further distinguish her from the others onstage. And Wiles’ facial expression, one of constant absentminded worry, accurately adds to this notion.
With “Britannicus,” Kahn, who directed another of Racine’s plays (“Bérénice”) last year, brings, as he put it, “A kind of play that you don’t really see performed at Yale.” And as far as this semester is concerned, he is right. According to the Yale Drama Coalition, Kahn’s is the only French play performed in French onstage this fall.
Written in the literary style of French classicism, which spanned the mid- to late-17th century, “Britannicus” is written in verse, a fact which even someone with a beginner’s knowledge of French quickly becomes aware of through the rhyming scheme.
Visiting French lectors from France’s École Normale Supérieure, Marc Douguet (Néron) and Charlotte Emin (Agrippine, widow of Domitius Enobarbus, Néron’s father) deliver outstanding performances, as does Samuel Lasman ’12 (Narcisse).
Particularly moving, and skillfully performed, is the scene toward the end of the play in which Agrippine confronts Néron, accusing him of an assassination.
On the other hand, Abigail Cheung ’11 detracts from an already weak Burrhus, a character constantly being overpowered by others in the play, by speaking in a low, self-conscious voice throughout, with a volume that, more than a reflection of Burrhus, reveals Cheung’s own preoccupation with correct pronunciation and the almost-mechanical recitation of lines.
Kahn, who in his sophomore year directed Mozart’s opera “La finta giardiniera” (another work written in the late 17th century), is evidently a serious director. And as his choice of play shows (one which, he acknowledges, does not appeal to the Yale community at large), he is deeply committed to this production. For instance, he introduces each performance in both French and English.
In a recent e-mail inviting his friends to see this production, Kahn wrote, “ ‘Britannicus’ is Racine’s most sinister tragedy, as well as the only one that takes place at night. It depicts the emperor Nero just as he begins his transformation into a tyrant. The characters are terribly vulnerable and beautifully cruel, the verse is sublime, and the ending never fails to take my breath away.” Though the ending might not take your breath away, Racine’s poetry, if you listen attentively (and have an advanced understanding of French), will.
“Britannicus” runs until Saturday at the Off-Broadway Theatre, with a show every night at 8 p.m. Tickets are free and can be reserved at firstname.lastname@example.org. The show is approximately an hour and 45 minutes long with no intermission.