Tuesday, 15 December 1998
Britannicus, Dec 15, 1998
by Jean Racine
La Mama at The New Ballroom, Trades Hall until Dec 20, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Jean Racine, the 17th century French writer, does not rate a mention in the program notes of Caroline Lee's production of his play, Britannicus. His text is the finest component of what is unfortunately a mediocre production.
Racine, encouraged by his contemporary, Moliere of The Comedie Francaise, was a master of poetic verse theatre. However, he wrote few plays before he abandoned the rivalry and resentment of theatre for the comforts of the court of Louis XIV.
His two masterpieces of tragedy are Britannicus and Phaedre that ran recently in London with the extraordinary Diana Rigg in the title role. The role of Nero's mother Agrippina in Britannicus, is not as substantial as that of Phaedre but it is potentially as gripping in its passionate characterisation and lyrical beauty.
Nero (Luke Elliot), after much conniving by Agrippina (Caroline Lee), took the throne of Rome in place of his step-brother Britannicus, (Ben Grant) Claudius' rightful heir. Three years later, his gratitude and obeisance to his mother has declined and he has all the telltale signs of the tyrant we know him to become.
Everybody feel invincible. All are vulnerable. Nero's mentor, Burrus (David Symons) believes he still influences Nero. Britannicus mistakenly believes Nero intends to release him. Agrippina has no idea of the extent of power over Nero exerted by Narcissus (Anthony Morton) who plots to poison his own master, Britannicus, to gain Nero's favour.
Only June (Kate Allison), Britannicus' sweetheart who is abducted by Nero, understands the danger.
Lee has staged the play in a room at Trades Hall, highlighting the political intrigue of the plot. Audience is seated in two opposing banks of seats as if in parliament and we are faced with three video screens, one huge and two smaller monitors. A sense of constant spying or media attention could be intended, but the videos are inadequately used and pictures are intermittent and fuzzy.
The second half had more emotional impact and connection with text than the first but the performances, apart from Lee and Morton at times, do not do justice to this fine text. Voices are often inaudible, sight lines were poor and casting was inappropriate.
There is so much more in this play. One problem with such a difficult piece, could be the director being on stage. Noone has an overview or an outside eye on the performances or the production.