“She loves my brother – I’ll have to console myself with his pain”
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new translation of Racine’s Britannicus updates the action to the modern day even though the story remains centred on a day in the life of Roman Emperor Nero. His power-hungry mother Agrippina manipulated things so that the succession passed to her favourite son Nero rather than rightful heir Britannicus after the death of Emperor Claudius, but her lust for power has passed down the bloodline. Rome shudders as Nero establishes himself politically, leaving Agrippina feeling increasingly marginalised, made worse by setting his gaze on his brother’s lover Junia.
Wilton’s Music Hall is such an atmospheric and idiosyncratic venue that I always want productions there to utilise it to its best potential so I have to admit to being a little disappointed by Chloe Lamford’s design which feels too modern and out of place. But Irina Brown’s direction makes inventive use of the space and also does make sense of the updating, Siân Thomas’ Agrippina channelling Thatcher vibes throughout as a woman battling in a male-dominated arena and the political intrigue that dominates everyone’s life whether they want it or not is immediately recognisable, no-one knows who to trust in this world of slippery political double-speak.
Thomas is excellent as the cool matriarch, disturbingly close to her son and this inherent creepiness is played on well by Matthew Needham’s Nero, clearly wanting to pull away from his overbearing mother and their weirdly sexualised relationship but not quite able to break free. He also suggests the dangerous emotion of someone rarely told ‘no’, in his determination to grab everything of his brother’s, his harsh treatment of his lover. Alexander Vlahos makes for a rather foppish usurped heir and I also liked Christopher Colquhoun’s devious servant.
For all the political machinations on display though, there’s never really an urgency about the play that spoke to me and made it feel essential. I did quite enjoy it at the time, the acting was good across the board and it was interesting to see a director make different use of such an evocative space. Ultimately though it just didn’t feel like it was bringing too much that was new to the table and so ends up with a solid middle-ranking and consequently I doubt it will live long in the memory.