The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
TS ELIOT regarded Jean Racine's Berenice as "the summit of civilisation in tragedy."
Unusual in eschewing the conventional catastrophic ending, it is a drama in which its three protagonists - Berenice, Titus and Antiochus - live on after its conclusion.
It ends before the real tragedy commences - the three remain alive, powerful but unhappily incomplete - and what drives their suffering is the disquieting prospect of endless separation.
Nevertheless Voltaire felt this was the weakest of the 17th-century French tragedian's plays, deeming it "rosewater" precisely because its characters surrender to their fate.
The situation revolves around the agonising choice Titus faces when, following the death of his father, he is crowned emperor of Rome. His love for Berenice, queen of Palestine, has already endured for five years. But he is soon made to realise through his pragmatic confidant Paulin - the excellent Nigel Cooke - that although his happiness lies with her, he compromises his people's with an unfavourable union. Rome is not prepared to welcome a foreign empress.
Yet King Antiochus of Comagene, friend to both Titus and Berenice, has long withheld his desire for the queen of Palestine and now plans to make his feelings known to her.
In a portrayal by Dominic Cooke which draws the occasional belly laugh, Antiochus comes across as a fool, though not unaware of his own limitations.
Unaware of his companion's betrayal, Titus asks him to leave Rome with Berenice the very next day and the descent into tragedy commences.
Racine's alexandrine metre often taxes translators and the blank verse employed by Alan Hollinghurst retains Racine's elegance in a radically different form.
Josie Rourke's direction is enhanced by Oliver Fenwick's vertical lighting resembling the sinking sands of an hourglass flowing on to the stage, above which set designer Lucy Osborne's suspends a spiral structure.
On the acting front, Stephen Campbell Moore regrettably reduces Titus to a plodding prince with a self-conscious and over-embellished delivery.
While he struggles to release the inner emotions , Anne-Marie Duff is a resplendent and sincere Berenice, who convincingly quicksteps between exaltation, alarm and resignation and memorably embodies the "majestic sadness" of Racine's heroine.
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