Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith
Entangled webs of deceit unroll on the Lyric’s stage in Jean Racine’s play Britannicus. Translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by Atri Banerjee, the show is a single spinning act, openly displaying manipulation and greed behind power games.
Britannicus (Nathaniel Curtis), the legitimate heir of Roman emperor Claudius, is deprived of the crown by his stepmother, Agrippina (Sirina Saba), who, through clever strategy, has gradually directed the favour of the army and the crowd to her own son, Nero (William Robinson). The latter has recently developed a romantic desire for Britannicus’s fiancée, Julia (Shyvonne Ahmmad). Kidnapping her and keeping her as a prisoner under threat in his palace, Nero is swayed in different directions – of mercy and then revenge, hate and benevolence, jealousy and violence – by Bhurrus (Helena Lymbery), Narcissus (Nigel Barrett) and Agrippina.
Featuring costumes such as tracksuits and objects like a water dispenser, the production is set in the modern day, but without forcing the narrative into a contemporary frame: it’s a story without an exact period, rather delving into the timelessness of human nature. The script is free from possible historical discrepancies, leaving the story to flow and focus on the interactions between the contenders and influences on the emperor. Despite the title, it is Nero who is the intriguing protagonist; Britannicus represents the victim and the good antagonist, who could possibly challenge the malignant dictator, but, in fact, the insecurity and suggestible mind of the authoritarian Nero are at the centre of the narrative. And credit goes squarely to Robinson, who perfectly impersonates the swinging moods of his character with equal viciousness and desperation.
With only a few props, the majority of which are chairs, the stage is constantly occupied by the actors themselves, all present throughout the performance. In this way, the scene is open to the flood of words and animated exchanges. Some of the performers assume a bit of a stiff posture (particularly evident as the dialogues are always between just two people); however, when there are more calculated movements – from the twitching of the fingers to the relaxing of the hands to long steps – the sequences are rendered more engaging and easier to follow.
Interesting and apt are the interspersed musical arrangements, performed live on violin by Hanna Khogali.
Overall the build-up of tension lacks some intensity. Still, the production effectively puts at its core the emotional and intellectual dynamics of a handful of people at the top of the political pyramid, giving theatregoers plenty to ponder about deception and power.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Britannicus is at the Lyric Hammersmith from 26th May until 25th June 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a discussion between the creatives behind Britannicus discuss the play here: