There's a stuffed wolf on stage, silently snarling its way through the opening scenes of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s biting new update on Jean Racine's 1669 play ‘Britannicus’. It's a reference to the founding myth of Rome, wherein two brothers suckled a she-wolf and absorbed some of her animal fierceness. Here, that she-wolf is Agrippina, the ruthless mother who sets her son Nero prowling on the path to greatness.
Between scenes, the performers convulse as though electrified to juddering, ancient-sounding strings. But actually, the body of Atri Banerjee’s production takes us to 'Succession' territory: William Robinson makes a wonderfully brattish Nero, flipping from ridiculous to terrifying with impressive deftness, running his court like it's the office of a particularly ruthless media business (right down to the snappy dressing and onstage water cooler). His mother Agrippina (a compellingly tough Sirine Saba) is keen to maintain her hold over him: after all, she got him the job, by marrying an emperor and elbowing his half-brother Britannicus out of the line of succession. But not content with taking Britannicus's throne, Nero also wants to take his bride-to-be Junia (Shyvonne Ahmmad), imprisoning her in the court and wooing her with cat-like manipulations and surreal, vivid speeches that are beautifully rendered in Wertenbaker's elegant, witty adaptation.
The play might be named for him, but Britannicus feels less than central here: Nathaniel Curtis plays the role with boyish seriousness, his naivety making him no match for Nero's scheming. Instead, this is a story of a mother-son relationship that curdles from shared love to mutual fear and poisons both parties with sadistic hatred. Rome is too small to contain the ambitions of this little family.
Like ancient Greek dramas, Racine's play has an arch, declamatory quality, its players turning to the audience to unfold their schemes or unpick the story's tangles. Banerjee's staging handles this artificiality stylishly, with Rosanna Vize’s design making the stage feel like a Tate Modern installation. It's deliberately non-naturalistic and flooded with coloured washes of light and studiedly mundane touches like the conference centre chairs that get kicked over as things kick off. This production feels like a masterclass in how to take a seldom-staged (in the UK, anyway) text and seduce an audience into confronting it, in all its writhing, sexy ugliness.