Wilton's Music Hall, London E1
Opened 21 October, 2011
Jean Racine valued elegance of form at least as much as powerful expression; more accurately, to him they were one and the same, with power deriving from proper shape and proportion rather than visceral emotion. His tragedies observed the unities of time and place even more closely than those of the ancient Greeks which served as his models: Britannicus (1669) takes place over a single day in the imperial Roman palace, as the emperor Nero finds himself assailed by personal and political stresses between various factions at court and in the imperial family. Although the play is titled after him, Nero’s stepbrother, the more rightful claimant to the imperial throne and also to the hand of Junia, plays a distinctly subordinate role in the drama to Nero himself and Agrippina, Nero’s mother.
Sian Thomas exudes that flinty Roman-matriarchal air so perfectly captured by her semi-namesake Sian Phillips as Livia in the 1970s television version of I Claudius. Brooke’s Agrippina is imperiously affronted that anyone could question her actions or her dynastic motives, least of all her own son. Seventies TV also provides a point of comparison for Matthew Needham’s Nero, in that, like the Cybermen in that period’s Doctor Who serials, he is possessed of a weapon unique amongst those around him: biting sarcasm. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new translation is quite as poised as the original French alexandrine verses, with all characters expressing themselves in polished rhetorical periods except Nero, who can stop an opponent in his or her tracks with a one-liner or a look askance.
Irina Brown’s production likewise adheres to formalism. By sitting the audience on what is normally the stage at Wilton’s, she can use the music hall’s gallery as an “above” from which characters (mostly the contending courtiers Burrhus and Narcissus) can eavesdrop, and also curtain off the rear of the stalls as an upstage “closet” space. It is a well-thought-out, highly coherent presentation. But a presentation is what it is. Racinean tragedy is a marvellous artefact to be contemplated and admired, not a strong dramatic current which sweeps us along with it. The antique, only partially restored atmosphere of Wilton’s adds to the sense that we are looking in at another time, another culture, which does not touch us directly, however masterly its craftsmanship.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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