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Review of Britannicus at Lyric Hammersmith - An appealing modern take on a beloved classic

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

Rated 🍯🍯🍯

Actors on stage clapping after a performance
Cast members of Britannicus on stage after a performance at Lyric Hammersmith

It is easy to go wrong with Jean Racine’s Britannicus. First, it is hard to design a set that’s redolent of ancient Rome, a time and place so far away from modern civilisation that there could be as many clashing imaginations of it as there are audience members in the auditorium. Then, there is the language. No translation is ever perfect, and any attempt, small or grand, to update the play’s original 17th century language will have its advocates and dissidents. Bring the play into the modern era and you might have to deal with Racine purists’ vexation that you have somehow robbed the play of its soul. Or keep the play true to its roots and you might rouse the ire of modernists who’d say the production isn’t topical or relevant.

Therefore, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s decision to tackle this beast, Britannicus, is impressive in its own right. What’s more, his rendition of the historic play worked great for the bee, who thoroughly enjoyed the no-frills, bare bones nature of the set, leaving the audience to imagine the palaces and skies of Ancient Rome in whatever way they pleased, and allowing the actors to own the responsibility of transporting the audience to the tense, fragile core of this play.

However, the ritualistic rearranging of the chairs after each scene got on the bee's nerves, to be honest. The audience could have been spared the distraction of people picking up chairs and pointlessly placing them elsewhere, all of which (if absolutely necessary, and it wasn’t) could have been accomplished in the dark, leaving the audience with a moment of silence to reflect on the scene that just went by and contemplate what’s coming next.

Racine’s Britannicus is a study of Nero, the despotic king of Ancient Rome who, if sources are to be believed, not only had his own mother Agrippina murdered for her tireless obsession with controlling him, but is also responsible somehow for the deaths of his wife Octavia and brother Britannicus, among others.

The play explores the complex interplay between power and fear, and how one ceases to exist without the other. Agrippina is slowly losing her hold over her son Nero, who wants to distance himself from his advisors and take on a more independent role in reigning over Rome. A tremendous paranoia about being rendered irrelevant causes her to pursue Nero relentlessly and desperately while still maintaining a veneer of dignity and respectability so that he may not see her weakness and therefore eventually find merit in restoring her place on the pedestal. A pitiable yet despicable character, Agrippina is at the heart of this play and is compellingly portrayed in the current production by Sirine Saba, who is so gripping and powerful on stage that she would have no trouble in holding the audience’s attention through a one-woman play about her character’s musings.

In all, a memorable production, although not as vivid in hindsight as a richer set and costume design might have been. The climactic scene appeared rather rushed and did not afford the audience the time to fully absorb the gravity of what was going on. Nevertheless, being the bee’s first exposure to plays of this genre, Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Britannicus was enjoyable and memorable.

Three stars.

Watched 17 June 2022 at the Lyric Theatre at Hammersmith, London.

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