Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre – review
Racine's classic is brought into the present day
Power as a corrupting force isn't in any way an original dramatic theme but it undoubtedly feels like a timely one for 2022 Britain, and Racine's 1660s tragedy resonates down the ages in its depiction of an astonishingly dysfunctional governing family turning on itself. That said, the neoclassical alexandrine convention of poetic declamation and description feels pretty far removed from the contemporary inclination towards realism, emotional engagement and action. There's nothing inherently wrong with that of course, but present day creative teams have quite the task to make this feel fresh and engaging. This new Lyric Hammersmith version, directed by Atri Banerjee with movement by Jennifer Jackson, is only intermittently successful.
Timberlake Wertenbaker's nimble, muscular translation, dating from 2011, doesn't sugarcoat it either, opting instead to honour the style of the original to such an extent that it runs the risk of alienating modern audiences. It's superbly done, but it is cool and distancing, and Banerjee's stylish, stylised staging -all dramatic backlighting, expressionistic movement, and anachronisms- only exacerbates the sense of watching something that is more to be admired than enjoyed. Pitched half way between art installation and full blooded theatrical production, it's visually striking but seldom catches dramatic fire.
When the show does ignite it's largely due to Sirine Saba and William Robinson's bold, committed performances as Roman mother-and-son-from-Hell duo, Imperial (and imperious) widow Agrippina and her increasingly power-deranged son Nero. Saba compellingly conveys Agrippina's panic as she realises her grasp on authority is slipping but also, and perhaps more interestingly, an authentic grief at the breakdown of her relationship with her son.
Robinson chillingly suggests the detachment and lack of empathy that comes from being a person of privilege to whom no one has ever really said no. Saba is an unsympathetic but formidable woman all too aware that she needs to survive in a milieu where her sex will always render her ultimately superfluous. He is a tormented, potentially psychopathic, man-child too screwed up to ever wield his power wisely or well….both actors are utterly terrific.
Helena Lymbery brings a fascinating melange of wit, venom and resignation to Nero's mentor Byrrhus. Shyvonne Ahmmad skilfully charts the traumatic downward trajectory of the young woman adored both by Nero and Nathaniel Curtis's puppyish title character, despite being required to spend an awful lot of time crawling around on all fours in a state of speechless distress.
There's an elegance and ingenuity to Rosanne Vize's design and Lee Curran's lighting that, in tandem with the dynamism of the central performances, almost makes it possible to overlook the inertia of Britannicus as a piece of drama. For all its intelligence and complexity, it remains difficult to engage with and, visually pleasing as they are, the bells and whistles of Banerjee's fleet, glossy staging tend to obscure rather than elucidate.
All in all, it's a slightly uneven production that contains many fine things but ultimately doesn't quite live up to it's exciting visual promise.