On the way in to Howard Brentonís latest play, Paul, at the National Theatre, I was accosted by a sizeable posse of fundamentalist Christians who assured me that I would go to Hell for seeing the play. No such protests at Sheffield Crucible for Brentonís The Romans in Britain, despite the scandal surrounding its 1980 production.
Of course the subjects of the original protests, the homosexual rape of a druid (treated unsensationally at Sheffield) and frequent outbreaks of male nudity, no longer shock any more than the regular use of obscene language.
What can shock is Brentonís presentation of invaders (Romans, Saxons, the British in Ireland) who assume the right to be right, as current a theme now as it ever was. The first act consists almost entirely of imagined events following Julius Caesarís invasion. Act 2 is more complex and, perhaps, less satisfactory, with a not wholly convincing tale of an undercover operation in 1980s Ireland overlapping with the coming of the Saxons.
Both play and production are powerful, dominated by imagery of the earth, stone and blood, but the tone, deliberately, is anything but consistent. Frequently surprisingly funny, the play ends not in polemic or tragedy, but in a mood of elegiac sweetness. The opening dialogue between two Irish robbers on the run has echoes of Waiting for Godot and Beckett is recalled again in the veiled, incontinent, plague-ridden Romano-British noblewoman with hints of both Winnie and Pozzo.
The play has its ludicrous moments: at times the off-stage screams of agony sound like a tape loop of the fifth act of Macbeth. The great strength of Samuel Westís production is that it makes no concession to its absurdities and plays the whole thing to the hilt.
Dan Stevens (Marban, the druid) and Guy Williams (in the somewhat thankless role of a visionary British officer) effectively hold together the first and second acts, respectively. However, the most memorable performances are comparatively brief: Tom Mannion as a splendidly sardonic, wittily sadistic Julius Caesar (ďWhat tribe was that we just cut to pieces?Ē), Laura Rees, compellingly still and silent as a Slave Girl, before bursting into violent activity, Raad Rawiís wild unreconstructed pagan of a Celtic chief, Judith Scottís two striking portrayals of power in decline, and many others.
Itís good to have the chance to see The Romans in Britain as a play, not a cause celebre, and this revival, tremendously committed and on the epic scale, savours its entertainment value as well as its serious purpose.
- Ron Simpson