First produced in the late 17th century, French dramatist Jean Racine's Britannicus tells the story of Roman emperor Nero during his teenage years. Unsurprisingly, knowing what we know about Nero and his eventual downfall, this is a tale of a complicated and confused man, full of powerful feelings and unorthodox behaviours.
Nero is caught between two worlds – of his empire and of his family. While his mother helped him to the throne, even to the extent of making his stepfather Claudius prefer him for the throne over blood son Britannicus, he turns against her, and against Britannicus too, as his lust for Britannicus' betrothed Junia grows, as does his hunger for control.
Sian Thomas' Agrippina is fabulously venomous and deceitful, her commanding posture saying it all. Matthew Needham's Nero is similarly gripping – vicious and childlike all in one, his psyche impossible to penetrate. He is thoroughly the emperor at points, but when finally with his mother (the best scene in the play), he reverts back to some pre-teen age – though the minute he is alone, this changes once more, and you wonder whether he was faking the whole thing.
The rest of the cast provide strong support – as Britannicus, Alexander Vlahos is full of teenage angst and woe, telling his lover he wants to “hate (Nero) with tranquillity”, leaping off ladders from a height, every movement a studied rush. As Junia, Hara Yannas is strong, particularly when trying to ignore Britannicus' onslaught of love while Nero hides nearby.
Timberlake Wertenbaker has done a neat job on Racine's 'untranslatable' text – and some truly lovely lines have come out of it, such as Nero's “she loves my brother – I'll have to console myself with his pain”. This (slightly overlong) piece can feel more studied than dramatic, which is possibly why some of Needham's line-readings seem peculiar, jarring us out of the stylised world of Wertenbaker's translation and Chloe Lamford's symbolic design, in which modern plastic chairs and curtains abound, while at the back of the stage lie a rag-tag bunch of discarded objects.
This is a world in which nobody knows what anyone is really thinking at any given time. Half are self-serving, hoisting themselves up the ladder and trying to stay there, while the other half just want to be left alone to get on with their lives. A little too close to the modern world for comfort, then.
- Miriam Zendle