Review: Boudica (Shakespeare’s Globe)

Gina McKee stars as the Iceni queen in Tristan Bernays’ new play

Inspired by an actor friend who bemoaned the lack of gutsy wartime roles for women, playwright Tristan Bernays picked Boudica as the perfect subject for a play steeped in violence and gore.

There’s enough original source material to place her in ancient Britain – an Icenian queen who battled Roman rule and was killed around 60 AD. But there are also plenty of huge gaps, allowing Bernays to weave a historical fiction into this epic, blood-soaked spectacle at the Globe.

Bernays’ writing is beautifully clear and disciplined. And with gods, battles, warriors and a stage awash with blood, Eleanor Rhode‘s production is a thrilling, challenging and thoroughly disturbing examination of one of Britain’s bloodiest – and feistiest – patriots.

Gina McKee is on a slow simmer as the vengeance-driven queen. From the ragged but upright figure who comes to claim her inheritance from the incredulous Romans, she morphs into a warrior who unites enemy tribes to strike back at the conquerors. McKee has plenty of shrewd, wiry toughness as a commander of men and a pragmatist who’ll torch cities and see children killed.

But what McKee also captures so tenderly is Boudica’s fierce, uncompromising love for her two 'darling daughters' – a devotion that outweighs every consideration of policy, estranges her allies and ultimately loses the war. Truly, a mother’s place is in the wrong.

She is joined by an outstanding cast. Abraham Popoola radiates power and arrogance as bad-boy ally Badvoc, while Forbes Masson as Cunobeline holds the fragile alliance together with a winning mix of tact and charm.

The jealous rivalry and sisterly devotion of twins is delivered with skill and passion by Natalie Simpson and Joan Iyiola as Blodwynn and Alonna. Suetonius, the Roman soldier, is given gravitas and cunning by Clifford Samuel, and the show is opened with huge aplomb by Anna-Maria Nabirye’s Andraste.

Rhode uses every possibility offered by the Globe’s space to create a sense of scale, aided by Tom Piper’s magnificent set with its huge, gilded wooden planks that move to create fortresses, woodlands – and the humiliating whipping post that begins Boudica’s bitter battle.

Musicians Louise Anna Duggan and Calie Hough create a thrilling score with their dual drum kits. And Cunobeline taking the mic and launching into The Clash classic "London Calling", complete with dancing and a stadium-standard light show (designed by Malcolm Rippeth), is a thrilling and entirely uplifting moment that’s met with roars of crowd approval, ditto "I Fought the Law". In fact if McKee felt like it, she could very easily add "I’m Every Woman" to the encore.

She is a valiant, loyal, principled queen with right on her side. In fact, a woman you would follow into battle…

Boudica runs at Shakespeare's Globe until 1 October.