After watching Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith one word comes to mind: why? Then questions emerge. Why this play? Why now? It’s difficult to answer as this bemusing production seems to serve no real purpose other than as a reminder that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But does an audience need to sit through 100 minutes with no interval to understand this blunt message? There’s nothing new being said here. Any illusion that this story mirrors the current British government and its cruel rule is basically non-existent.
So what’s the story? In a modern-day Rome, young Nero (William Robinson) has recently seized the throne as emperor, in place of his brother and rightful heir Britannicus (Nathaniel Curtis from It’s a Sin). Nero’s mother Agrippina (Sirine Saba) has set this all on course with her years of scheming. Now she - and everyone else - is paying the price for moulding her spoilt brat of a son into a tyrant. Nero’s latest desire is Britannicus’ fiancé Junia (Shyvonne Ahmmad), who he wants to steal and wed for himself, even though he’s already married.
Drama should abound, but doesn’t. Yes, there’s a lot of shouting, wailing, and crying, but there are no stakes. The text is dense, and in turn the story is at times difficult to follow. One of the reasons for this is there is a genuine lack of plot. The story has been usurped by an onslaught of off-stage character names who are given little to no context who have almost nothing to do with the action going on on stage. Narrative momentum is given over to backstory.
Written by French dramatist Jean Racine, the play was first performed in 1669 at the famous Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris. Esteemed contemporary playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, best known for Our Country’s Good, has adapted the piece, but not well. Occasionally some lines get a few laughs (mostly due to William Robinson’s delivery as the entitled Nero) but this script is turgid and lumbering. This is accentuated by Atri Banerjee’s clumsy direction, with confusing motifs like prisoner Junia bizarrely crawling about the stage on the side lines. There’s a long stretch where the action stops for several minutes so a small army of stage managers can place rows of chairs on stage, which are then never used. A water cooler gives the actors some ‘stage business’ but has no meaning or significance to the action. These directional choices come from nowhere and go nowhere.
The ensemble do the best they can with the material they have, but their potential is not utilised. It would be unfair to dig into their acting choices when it is clear the script and direction are to blame for this underwhelming and at times yawn-inducing production.
|What||Britannicus Lyric Hammersmith review|
|Where||Lyric Hammersmith, Lyric Square, King St, W6 0QL | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Hammersmith (All lines) (underground)|
26 May 22 – 25 Jun 22, 7:30 PM – 12:00 AM
|Website||Please click here for more information|