Review: Britannicus, Lyric Hammersmith ★★★☆☆

by Jim Keaveney

Poor Britannicus - a bit-part player; not only in the life of Nero but also in the play that bears his own name. Much like Shakespeare’s Julis Caesar where arguably Brutus is the protagonist, in Jean Racine’s 1699 play, translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Nero is the true protagonist. 

Agrippina (Sirine Saba), the mother of the emperor Nero (William Robinson), has been sidelined by her son and fears she is losing her influence to his advisors Burrhus (Helena Lymbery) and Narcissus (Nigel Barrett). Meanwhile, Nero has imprisoned and fallen for Junia (Shyvonne Ahmmad) who has been promised in marriage to his older-half brother Britannicus (Nathaniel Curtis) who he has usurped as emperor. Set in a modern Rome, Wertenbaker's translation updates the language so that it resonates with contemporary events - 'tyranny always promises good things' quips Agrippina.

The cast of Britannicus. Photo: Marc Brenner
Played straight through in a tight 100 minutes, it opens with Albine (Hanna Khobgali) playing a five-note contemplative motive, by the play’s composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman, on violin. It is a lament that morphs into a frenzy - a signal of what is to come. In Robinson’s hands, Nero’s descent is truly hair-raising, accentuated by Khobgali’s frantic playing. However, though the intention seems to be to portray Nero as sociopathic, the way in which he is so easily manipulated by his mother and Narcissus suggests he is otherwise. 

Curtis, fresh from his It’s a Sin success, fails to garner the audience's sympathy for the tragic hero Britannicus who is naive about his situation to the point of being unbelievable. His pining for Junia is tragic in the wrong sense. Sirine Saba is generally impressive, with the Freudian aspect of her relationship with Nero hinted at but not overplayed, though there is a strange out-of-character moment where she appears to enact a drunken lout as she confronts Burrhus.

William Robinson. Photo: Marc Brenner
There are other interesting directorial choices by Arti Banerjee that aim higher than they achieve - the musical vignettes between scenes are accompanied by fit-like convulsions from the cast. While the music works well, the convulsions that were striking in the opening lose their power with each scene and it becomes less clear what Banarjee’s intention is.

Like many classical adaptions, the references to unseen historical characters, many long dead, are left unexplained, their relevance lost on those without prior knowledge of the setting or the complicated family ties. Though they are partially explained by Agrippina towards the end, by this time much of the play has passed by.

Sirine Saba, Nathaniel Curtis and Nigel Barrett. Photo: Marc Brenner
Rosanna Vize’s set, backed by a banner depicting the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus and surrounded by chairs on which the characters sit when not in the action, is visually impressive with an ominous black ash-like rain falling on Rome. It is elevated by Lee Curran’s lighting, particularly as Nero descends into madness. However, a seemingly unnecessary and extended set change, partially masked by a singing Nero, kills the momentum of the play’s climax. The conclusion is borne out with conversations of unseen events so that it limps to a finish as Nero rages alone and the future of Rome lies uncertain.

Britannicus is at the Lyric Hammersmith until 25 June.

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim

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