Saturday, 16 September 2017

Theatre review: Boudica

Closing this year’s Globe summer season is a new play that playwright Tristan Bernays has crafted to fit in very well with the old ones that make up most of the theatre’s repertory. And it’s based around a character who it’s strange to think none of the original Globe’s playwrights tackled, the only reason I can think of being the ban on female actors meaning too big a burden being placed on a young boy; because Boudica has all the elements Jacobethan theatre liked to get stuck into. Set during Nero’s reign, the Roman Empire occupies Britain with the help of some of the former tribal kings. Known as client-kings, they pay taxes and stop their people from rebelling in return for getting to keep their titles and lands. The play begins with the death of a leading client-king, whose widow Boudica (Gina McKee) expects to inherit half his land as per the agreement he made with the Romans.

But Catus Deciamus (Samuel Collings) decides to break the deal and keep all the lands for Rome, and when Boudica demands her rights he has her whipped, and her daughters raped by the soldiers.

Far from subduing her as intended, this sets her on a course of violent revenge, and Boudica enlists the kings of neighbouring tribes to join her in a revolt that sees them destroy Colchester, because fuck Colchester. Eleanor Rhode’s production makes Boudica feel very much at home with the Shakespearean epics, Tom Piper giving it an imposing design of wooden planks that crash to the stage as Boudica begins her rampage, and get suspended above it as chaos starts to reign. It’s done in period costume and war-painted faces, except for Anna-Maria Nabirye’s Andraste, the war goddess who serves as narrator in modern combat gear. But a bit like Mike Bartlett did with King Charles III, Bernays has written a play that almost feels like it could be slotted into the Shakespeare canon, be revived in theatres of all scales and have any conceit imposed on it.

At times Boudica feels like a female-led King Lear, particularly in the way it comes down to the title character’s relationship with her daughters, the aggressive Blodwynn (Natalie Simpson) and especially the more thoughtful and empathetic Alonna (Joan Iyiola.) It’s the latter’s concern that the rebels shouldn’t be as bad as the Romans they’re replacing that lets doubt enter her mother’s unbroken rampage of violence, leaving the opportunity for a tragic ending. McKee certainly seems to have embraced the possibility of making this her Lear, taking on the ambiguity of a woman with a righteous cause who is, nevertheless, a monster when seen from the perspective of the women and children she’s butchering.

Rhode’s production embraces the play’s violence and is full of energetic fight sequences from Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown. Although it’s ironic that in a play written in part to make up for a lack of warrior roles for women, the most memorable fight sequence sees Abraham Popoola’s barbarian king Badvoc take on all-comers with his axe. The anachronistic sense of fun familiar to the Globe is also there in moments like the attack on Londinium, that sees Forbes Masson’s Cunobeline open the second act by leading the cast in The Clash’s “London Calling.”

There’s also plenty of humour to keep the gory subject matter from turning the evening too bleak – Brian Martin plays so many minor comic characters it starts to feel like a running gag in itself. I could maybe have done with a bit of interaction between Boudica and Clifford Samuel’s Suetonius, the one senior Roman who seems to have any respect for his enemy: There seemed to be the potential there to set them up as real nemeses, which wasn’t quite taken advantage of. There's also a minor case of Multiple Ending Syndrome that keeps things going a little after what feels like the natural end. But in most respects this is a hit, and with new plays at the Globe being notoriously difficult to make work, Bernays joins the ranks of Howard Brenton and Jessica Swale who can pull it off.

Boudica by Tristan Bernays is booking in repertory until the 1st of October at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Steve Tanner.

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