Recently I started to volunteer as an usher at the Wilton Music Hall which, this afternoon, gave me an opportunity to witness a masterpiece on stage. Jean Racine’s Britannicus is not a play I know and my knowledge of the Roman Empire is sketchy at the best of times. But I have always believed that you can walk into a play cold and, if it is any good, enjoy it for what it offers and even be transformed by it. This production of Britannicus scores full marks on both accounts.
The play explains Nero’s ascendancy to power despite the rightful heir being his step brother Britannicus and hints at the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. Deceit, greed, calculation, and paranoia characterise Nero’s rule. No one trusts or is trusted in this surveillance state where familial relationships are ravaged by the desire for absolute power. Courtiers, advisers and family members switch allegiances to profit themselves with scant thought paid to the outcome of their actions.
The play intimates that that was hope when Nero first came to power. But the Nero we meet transforms into tyrant before our eyes as he spurns sensible counsel, and circumvents his power mad and ambitious mother, Agrippina, to do what he wants. His increasing neurosis is fed by self interested and cunning courtiers whose advice aids this unpalatable transformation.
Matthew Needham’s Nero is wonderfully volatile which is a testament to Needham’s command of his role. He’s also got an excellent voice. Sian Thomas is an alluring but calculating Agrippina with a Cleopatra-esque quality and Alexander Vlahos’s Britannicus is fiery but naive. The best scene in the play is the one when Nero and Agrippina meet where the chemistry and the emotions are palpable. I am, however, unsure why the play is called Britannicus since his role is more of a supporting one unlike Nero’s. While the small cast delivers the goods, it is unfortunate that one of the characters forgot some of his lines this afternoon.
This production modernises the play with characters in contemporary clothes and a simple set design that spells discordance and chilling sterility. The audience sit on Wilton’s stage while the play is on the floor and this gives the historical play a neat intimacy where the audience can feel like they make up the chorus, witnessing the tragedy. I can’t judge if this new translation by Timberlake Werternbaker is true to the original text but the language in this new production is utterly beautiful and flows effectively.
It is a highly relevant play for our own time as it can be about any of the ruling regimes and dynasties which favour opacity. Anyone who has been following the recent revelations of an Asian royal family will also note several similarities. With Gaddafi’s death still fresh in our mind, this play couldn’t have been staged at a better time.
Britannicus is at the Wilton’s Music Hall until 19 November. Tickets are available at the box office . Performance time is 100 minutes with no interval.