Britannicus at the Albery Theatre
Imagine Dame Diana Rigg at her most irascible - hardly the picture of maternal warmth. Luckily, as Agrippina, the driven mother of a Roman emperor in the Almeida production of Jean Racine s Britannicus, she's not supposed to be. But then, pity the woman, having a son like Nero is no field of daisies for even the most doting of mothers.
Agrippina has stopped at nothing to get her son on the throne - selling herself, killing off or exiling her enemies, bullying her dying second husband into disowning his own son and heir Britannicus in favour of hers. But her ruthlessness has little to do with maternal pride or affection and much more to do with her own appetite for power. She expects to continue pulling the strings of power, just as she has always done. The newly omnipotent Nero, sick of playing mummy's marionette, has other plans, however. And poor Britannicus, the emasculated step-brother rival, and his love Junia are the biggest victims as battle lines between mother and son are drawn.
Though Rigg is at her formidable and wily best, she comes second fiddle in this production to Toby Stephens in his performance as Nero, a study of a man riven with self-doubt and warring loyalties. Stephens plays it with the preening, cigarette-sucking self-consciousness of a doomed 40s film idol and you feel, at every turn, that this character may yet surprise you - paranoid schizophrenics will do that. As Act II marches on through a succession of scenes where courtiers and kin attempt to stake their influence over him, Nero's weak-willed nature and changeability becomes painfully obvious. This is how tyrants are made.
Joanna Roth s Junia and Kevin McKidd s Britannicus, Nero's pawns in love and war, are tragic but less interesting, while David Bradley as the faithful Burrus and Julian Glover as the double-crossing Narcissus are wonderfully effective as the opposing angel and devil sitting on Nero's shoulders.
Director Jonathan Kent decides rightly to place the characters in this classic tragedy in dark, up-to-date surroundings. Maria Bjornsen s set gives an impressive sense of depth and sumptuousness with its bold, skewy angles, blood-red walls, dramatic paintings, and two, giant, lumanescent fish tanks. Against this dramatic corridor of power, the characters hover in shadows and hatch plots, clothed in sharp suits (Nero in funeral black, Britannicus in Martin Bell white) and sleek mink stoles.
It's all very unsettling and film-noirish - a sort of theatrical Pulp Fiction but with the needle stabbing scene taking place off stage - and it leaves you with a satisfying melancholy not easily shaken upon leaving the theatre.