Union Chapel, London N1
Opened 31 January, 2000

Despite the bizarre title, Byzantium .00AD is set neither in a non-existent year zero nor in something-hundred; it is, in fact, a speculative history of the three occupants of the Byzantine imperial throne during the 960s AD: the drunken and ineffectual Romanus II, the ascetic but too trusting Nicephorus Phocas, and the rather more unbending John Tzimisces. The latter two began as generals in the service of the first, and ascended the throne by successively marrying Romanus's widow Theophano.

The scheming empress assumes, in Anastasia Revi's adaptation (from a Greek novel, a Greek play, a clutch of Yeats poems and the Orthodox Book of Psalms!), a similar status to that of Livia in Robert Graves's Claudius books. Unfortunately, Revi has not quite Graves and Jack Pulman's skills as a writer and adapter... nor those of Herbert Wise, who directed the 1970s television version thereof... nor those of Siân Phillips, who played Livia in it. Yes, this is one of those affairs in which one person presents herself starring in her own production of her own adaptation. No matter that Revi is one of three actresses playing Theophano at various ages; she sells her Anglo-Greek production short both as an actor and a director. This is most apparent in her scenes with Stamos Fafalios as Nicephorus: Revi over-melodramatic (and entirely inconsistent with her younger and older "selves", Elizabeth Jardine and Mary Cunningham), Fafalios sorely underplaying even by the dispassionate standards of his character.

Revi's direction is a matter of manoeuvring her actors around the stage rather than working with them to establish collective mood and individual nuance. The actors are left largely to fend for themselves in performance, which few apart from Cunningham and Christos Lyngas as Tzimisces manage with much success. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the Union Chapel also work against the company; it is a beautiful space, wholly appropriate for the atmosphere of ecclesiastical imperium which the production requires, but the words of the more heavily accented cast members, and of anyone speaking at the same time as background music or sound effects, become lost in reverberation. The music itself is largely a kind of liturgical trip-hop chanting underlaid by beats (although Nick Cave makes a fleeting appearance) and, together with solid-colour costumes, self-conscious choreography and a narrator who throws pointless and ludicrous shapes, contributes to the overall impression of a rather dippy New Age blend of theatrical exotica for its own sake.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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