Britannicus review: Fantastic backstabbing fun with a towering central performance

Britannicus review: Fantastic backstabbing fun with a towering central performance

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We’ve all heard he fiddled as Rome went up in flames, but what were the makings of this legendary megalomaniac? Welcome to Nero, the hormonal early years. And when you meet his mother, you realise this rotten apple didn’t fall far from the treacherous tree. This muscular and dynamic modern reinterpretation of Racine’s classic play, translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by Atri Banerjee, packs all the action into one hour and forty minutes with no interval. It romps along like an unusually lyrical and articulate blockbuster, with all the explosions delivered as a series of ever more devious, double-crossing and devastating (and ultimately deadly) blows.

Frankly, modern soaps and reality shows could only dream of this kind of family drama.

Nero was made Emperor just 17, unexpectedly supplanting his step-father’s son and expected heir Britannicus after also marrying his sister Octavia. It was a bit of military coup, engineered by his rapaciously ambitious and ruthless mother Agrippina. She had married Emperor Claudius after poisoning her second husband and was generally believed to have done the same again to get her son on the throne.

The granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, sister of Emperor Caligula, and then wife of Emperor Claudius, Agrippina was the ultimate power player and had fully expected to rule her son from the shadows. As the play opens she is discovering the biggest danger to her plans is the one she nursed closest to her breast.  

In a white tracksuit and gold chain, Nero is the nouveau cuckoo in the royal nest, an unstable man-child – by turns petulant, capricious, needy, neurotic and even a little sweet. Until you realise he is also basically a complete sociopath.

Robinson is utterly mesmerising and chillingly believable in the role. His emotions are transparent, even as you watch him switch them on and off almost at whim. This is a potent performance from a young star in the making who commands the stage. Even his singing is beautiful.

Opposing him, power dressed in a black body-con sheath and patent heels is Sirine Saba as his mother. Whether stalking the stage, sinuously stroking a stuffed wolf (and her own ego) or frequently trying to browbeat and manipulate everyone around her, it’s a powerhouse piece of scenery-chewing.

There’s great support from a bluff Helena Lymbery as honourable courtier Burrhus and a slightly underwhelming turn from Nigel Barrett as the endless duplicitous Narcissus.

Nathaniel Curtis is an endearingly naive Britannicus, who at least still has his own true love Junia (a passionate Shyvonne Ahmmad) until Nero decides he quite fancies taking that from him, too.

The staging is spare –  conference chairs, a water-cooler and, looming ominously above, a huge symbolic painting of the babies Romulus and Remus suckling on a wolf. The former, of course, would later kill his brother and found the Eternal City. 

The action is taut, the script mercilessly sharp and there is nice use of dynamic movement in every scene – although I could live without the performance art mass shuddering and shaking in between scenes. 

Whether you know your Roman history or not, this is tremendous fun and a salutary reminder that nothing ever changes when power, politics or families are involved. 

RATING: 4 STARS

BRITANNICUS IS AT THE LYRIC HAMMERSMITH TO JUNE 25

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