OWhen Jean Racine wrote Britannicus in 1669 it was governed by the classical French idea that required a play to take place in real time, in one place, over the course of a day. But for a modern audience, and even with the formidable Timberlake Wertenbaker as translator and adapter, Britannicus proves static drama rather than vividly unfolding drama. Wertenbaker shortened the text but is still necessarily involved in catch-up explanations that block progress. Director Atri Banerjee does his best to face every challenge fearlessly, but until the end the action is so rare that when Nero throws a tantrum two-thirds of the way through and eases his feelings by hitting the cooler of water from the office, it is a high point. At worst, the experience of watching the game is like driving with the handbrake on.
Britannicus is truly the story of Nero: a day in the life of a despot. And there are some great performances here: William Robinson is cast perfectly as the Roman Emperor – he walks around in white tracksuit bottoms, barefoot, like he’s on a casual power trip. He has a way of lighting others up for the laughs to reinforce his own control madness, and given the sobriety elsewhere, you’re grateful for the calculated entertainment it provides. The play focuses on Nero’s relationship with his tyrannical mother, Agrippina. Sirine Saba fiercely communicates her sense of having been neglected by her son (Racine’s maternal power play is in interesting contrast to that other Roman pair: Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Volumnia).
The role of Britannicus is light, but Nathaniel Curtis (recently celebrated for the Channel 4 drama series It’s a sin) brings to Nero’s adoptive brother the charm of a gentle giant and is plaintively outspoken. Shyvonne Ahmmad is remarkable as his fiancée, Junia, a petite figure in burgundy taffeta recently kidnapped by Nero. In front of an audience with her beloved Britannicus, she exclaims: “I want to register you,” and both of her feet leave the ground as she jumps up to try and match her lover’s height. Through his desperation, Ahmmad brings an emotional center to the production that it urgently needs.
Rosanna Vize’s decor is eerily odd, with a Paul Rubens detail Romulus and Remus suckled by a wolf as a striking backdrop – and a real stuffed wolf lies on stage throughout. The final wedding scene is impressive and suitably funereal. Instead of confetti, ashes regularly fall in front of a single graffiti name scribbled in black: NERO.
At the Théâtre du Parc, another name, in red capital letters, sits above the stage: TONY! It’s an opportune time to reflect on what makes a prime minister disastrous, and comedian Harry Hill and composer Steve Brown Tony! (Tony Blair’s rock opera) is a fresh new multitasking musical, exuberantly directed by Peter Rowe. The set (designer Libby Watson) is in the colors of New Labor and the actors wear black suits and scarlet ties. Blair is played by Charlie Baker with an engaging, cheesy smile and an insidious, insinuating smile. What makes his performance hilarious and disarming is that it casts Blair as a jerk and not self-doubt – a waddling aspiring rock star obsessed with Mick Jagger (whose last name he constantly gets wrong :Jaggers). Cherie (Holly Sumpton) is a risky floozy that Tone is very afraid of.
Don’t expect subtle political analysis here as Blair’s decade in power is charted – and prepare for weapons of mass destruction that double as effortless gags. But Hill is onto something, as this simple exchange reveals: Tony: “People love me, Gordon. Gordon: “It’s because they don’t know you.” Gary Trainor is perfect as the brooding Gordon Brown, singing about macroeconomics. Howard Samuels is delightfully slick and camp like Peter Mandelson, Rosie Strobel is an extremely musical Osama bin Laden and Madison Swan an entertaining and wise Princess Diana (“There were three of us in our marriage, seven if you count all the guys I’ve dated Steve Brown’s music is hearty and varied, from Sondheim to ragtime – and the final number, The Whole World Is Run By Assholes, is hauntingly beautiful.
With a ghost in sight, there’s no doubt who to blame when the lighting system suddenly turns dangerous, as it did the night I saw Mark Ravenhill’s beautifully written short new play. The Haunting of Susan A. The technical hitch at the King’s Head, where Ravenhill is co-artistic director, meant the show, two-handed, went late, under an unflattering class gaze. Ravenhill, who stars in the series, tried to compensate for this using a cell phone whenever it was in the dark. But those issues have barely meant in what turns out to be the story of a space: a definite haunting in a pub theater that was once, fascinatingly to learn, a private bare-knuckle fight club.
The feel of the production, co-directed by Iman Qureshi, is one of premeditated improvisation, rehearsed spontaneity, as Suzanne Ahmet claims (not quite convincingly) to be a random, protesting bystander snatching the narrative reins of Ravenhill and goes on to tell, with beautiful urgency, the story of a Victorian mother who tapped actresses on the shoulders, trying to ask for the help she was doomed never to receive. It’s the most enjoyable cooler – affecting too – and well worth setting aside an hour to see.
Star ratings (out of five)
Tony! (Tony Blair’s rock opera) ★★★★
The Haunting of Susan A ★★★