Productions of Racine’s plays are often bathed in black, drooping with despair and boring to boot. But Timberlake Werternbaker’s beautifully distilled adaptation of Racine’s ‘Britannicus’, in which the context is condensed and
the emotions magnified, is exhilarating theatre.
This was Racine’s only stab at Roman tragedy and opens as Nero, not the legitimate heir Britannicus, succeeds Emperor Claudius’ throne. It is a backdrop rich with bloody back-history, yet Irina Brown’s modern-dress production feels like a chillingly tangible domestic drama about a mother struggling to let go of her son.
Rome is kept concealed behind a curtain, the shattered statues and ancient relics revealed only at crucial moments. Mostly, the action unfolds on a sparse stage, accompanied by restrained lighting and rumbling sound effects, which amplify the power of Wertenbaker’s pared down but exceptionally textured script.
The showdowns between Agrippina and her son Nero are entrancing. Sian Thomas’ Agrippina, with her searing gaze and blazing power suits, is all of Glenn Close’s brutal incarnations rolled into one. Nero (a brilliant Matthew Needham) is a sullen but terrifying teenager, Hamlet turned rotten.
Power surges up and slides between the two, as they test and tease each other. They kiss, randy and repellent, only for Nero to spit in disgust as soon as his mother’s back is turned.
This mesmerising power play spreads right across the court, with the servants frequently outfoxing their masters. It makes for a fantastically volatile production, which leaves one glued to the actors’ eyes, desperate for clues as to who will turn, and in what direction, next.
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I didn't know the play at all, and when I said to people at work I was going to a 400(?) year old French play about the Roman empire performed in a Victorian music hall, it raised eyebrows. But the performances were excellent- particularly the snide and sneaky Narcissus, and Nero who was as much manipulated as manipulating. And although I always fear a play with no interval (especially after a couple of hours in the wonderful Mahogany Bar....) Britannicus managed to maintain pace and intrigue throughout. The only criticism was about the first 10 minutes where things takes a while to get going, as the characters fill you in on the (necessary) background in quite a clunky way. But having got into the action, it doesn't look back. Give it a try. A great venue, and a rewarding theatre experience.