An absolute classic returns to London this week for the first time in over a decade as Lyric Hammersmith present a new production of Jean Racine’s Britannicus. First being seen in 1669, this new version has been translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker. As remarkable as it is to still be performed over 350 years later, can it still hold up today?
The first play where Jean Racine depicted Roman history, Britannicus tells the story of its title character who was the son of Roman Emperor Claudius and the heir to the throne whose succession is stopped by his step-brother Nero. Themes of morality are at play as Nero debates his legacy which ultimately leads to the dictator’s rise to power. With questionable political motivations, it finds surprising relevance even in the 21st Century – there’s even a party at one point.
Britannicus is played by Nathaniel Curtis, who was recently seen in the truly incredible series It’s A Sin. Utterly charismatic, he proves himself as a fantastic actor though his time in the spotlight is fittingly short-lived as he has far less time on stage (though he does sit in the sidelines throughout) than you might expect with someone whose picture adorns the shows artwork.
William Robinson does a great job portraying Nero and all the complexities of his character as he flits back and forth from one extreme to the other. William manages to find the line between understated and overstated for the quieter, more emotional moments which are in direct contrast to the explosions that intersperse the show.
Another standout is Sirine Saba as Claudius’ wife and Nero’s mother Agrippina who manipulates with an ever-present smirk on her face in a performance which dominates whenever she is at the forefront. Shyvonne Ahmmad is underused but admirable as Junia – the object of both Britannicus and Nero’s affections. The cast is completed by Nigel Barrett as Narcissus, Hanna Khogali as Albine and Helena Lymbery as Burrhus.
While the cast may be great, the direction falters. Never quite knowing what it wants to be and not demonstrating it effectively enough, baffling choices litter the stage which detracts from what could have otherwise been a brilliant production. The set design is jarringly strange – supposedly meant to be set in modern Rome, it feels like it is set in its own timezone with conflicting props never quite making sense of which era it is in – with the presence of a water cooler being among the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed in a play. Feeling too small for what is a relatively larger space, the production is exclipsed by the emptiness that surrounds it. The emergence of stage management in a prolonged moment to rearrange the stage while the cast stand on the sidelines in full light is a complete misfire that ultimately takes the audience out of their escapism of the play to realise the absurdity of what they were witnessing.
The use of movement is equally surprising. Characters crawl around the stage in a seemingly endless loop, occasionally kicking the odd chair to make sure everybody is still awake, while at other times they shake maddingly which perhaps doesn't convey exactly what they were hoping to achieve with it.
This version of Britannicus is admirable in its aspirations to modernise the plot and bring it back up to date but ultimately this never lands with the production regrettably feeling directionless. While the dialogue remains excellent and the cast do a respectable job trying to make the best of it, this is perhaps a show that should have been left in the past.
Britannicus is playing at Lyric Hammersmith until June 25th. Tickets from https://lyric.co.uk/shows/britannicus/
Photos by Marc Brenner