“Brittanicus”, based on the classic french drama of the same title, is a complex family drama/fight for power/love story. It’s all packed in one long act of 110 minutes, which frankly made it a bit difficult for me to digest as a whole – there’s just so much that happens, especially during the last 15 minutes of the play. (now you know – so be ready to commit and bring your drinks with you!)
Britannicus: history with a splash of fiction
But let’s start from the beginning. “Britannicus” follows a 1669 text by Jean Racine, translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker. This part historical, part fictional story follows the drama of young Nero (yes, “The Antichrist” as believed by some Christians, accused of burning down Rome), who tries to break free from his mother’s control, feels threatened by his step-brother and falls in love (or so he claims). It’s a kind of soap opera on steroids – there’s lust, there’s jealousy, there’s a fight for power.
The family power play
Britannicus (said step-brother, portrayed by Nathaniel Curtis), is the face of the show, and you have probably seen posters of him on the tube or online. He’s not the main hero here, however – merely the reason for the whole mess that follows. Being a potential threat to Nero’s position on the throne, and being married to Julia (Nero’s romantic interest) is all it takes to spark a fire. Curtis plays a lost, rather a soft character that is extremely emotional and less strategic. Because of this, having strong characters on the opposite side of the stage – being Nero and his mother Agrippina, we know he has no chance to win.
It’s truly Nero (remarkable William Robinson rocking a white tracksuit) and his mother (Sirine Saba) that own the show. Their tumultuous relationship and one-on-one scenes are gripping and emotional, and weirdly, make you understand Nero’s insanity. Agrippina is a character with a strong lust for power, so when she feels that Nero’s dependency starts slipping away, she’s ready to even damage him mentally, just to make sure she still pulls the strings. Sirine Saba clearly projects these emotions – sometimes it’s maybe even too clear: as scenes where she sits down, petting a taxidermied wolf, are a bit in-your-face.
William Robinson as Nero is the highlight of the play for me. His hero seems to be in a constant “fight or flight” mode, trying to escape from his mother’s power but at the same time willing to keep her close. He’s hungry for power, even though power means loneliness – and he clearly can’t cope with loneliness well, at this moment in time. He’s a classic villain, but portrayed in a way that will make you feel sorry for him (at least I did!). My favourite scene was the change that happened when Nero drags the painting off the wall, revealing his name written behind it, as black ashes fall from the ceiling. A scene with no words, yet so powerful!
Moving through the chairs
Talking about movement: a lot is happening, from the constant movement of chairs on the stage to the dancing/shaking of characters that marks the end of a scene, through actors walking or crawling away from the main arena on the stage. Some of the solutions used are powerful and needed – like the moment when Nero throws Julia off her chair to initiate the imprisonment. Some are a little less obvious, like Julia crawling around the stage or Britannicus just standing at the end of the stage and staring into one point for the length of the whole scene.
It’s a play that merges the new and the old – and it doesn’t take a stand at where it would rather be. The play’s script follows the original closely, giving it an old, almost medieval vibe. Some introductory scenes are delivered in a classic manner: actors standing still and delivering a long monologue to another stiff actor opposite. I appreciate that it followed a particular style consistently (not my favourite though). On the other side, the staging is modern, consists of a huge rug, a classic painting displaying babies being fed by a wolf (usually Romulus and Remus, but in this case it could be a metaphor for Britannicus and Nero). There’s also a water dispenser machine in the corner, which gives the stage a sudden office/formal setting vibe. All in all, it’s a little bit confusing: are we following a story that happens in the past, the current times, or somewhere in between?
The play is beautifully wrapped in a “music ribbon” by Hanna Khogali’s violin, which gives it a sad fairytale flavour. Altogether, “Britannicus” is a gripping play that highlights the emotions involved in the struggle for power in both modern and historical contexts. I enjoyed most of it, but William Robinson’s magnetic role of Nero would draw me to revisit the play over and over!
Directed by: Atri Banerjee
Translated by: Timberlake Wertenbaker
Set & Costume Designer: Rosanna Vize
Cast: Nathaniel Curtis, William Robinson, Sirine Saba, Hanna Khogali, Helena Lymbery, Shyvonne Ahmmad, Nigel Barrett
Ticket price: £10++
26 May – 25 June 2022