The enchanting Wilton’s Music Hall resembles many things, including a bath house or forum with its high ceiling and immersive acoustics, making it an ideal setting for the grandeur and ruthlessness of the Roman Empire with its obscenely complicated genealogy. Irina Brown’s stylish modern-dress production of Jean Racine’s 1669 tragedy Britannicus (in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker, co-Artistic Director of Natural Perspective Theatre Company with Brown) offers the opportunity to see the space back to front: the audience sits on the stage and the performance takes place on a tiled floor with the balcony as a backdrop. Only a few upturned transparent plastic chairs adorn the floor and a plastic shower curtain is pulled back to reveal a junk-filled storeroom stuffed with trunks, books and decapitated marble busts (designed by Chloe Lamford), possibly a nod to all the crumbling ambitions mouldering away.
Many a tyrant’s reign begins with optimism: as the play opens, the late Emperor Claudius has been succeeded by Nero, the son of his last wife Agrippina (also his niece, for whom he overturned the laws regarding incest), rather than his own son Britannicus. Britannicus (a fairly minor character in his own tragedy) is in love with Junia (Hara Yannas), the only surviving member of her aristocratic family, who becomes Nero’s own lust object. Nero’s notorious reputation precedes him, yet the underlying implication here is that his fate wasn’t pre-ordained having been given too much power at too young an age (Matthew Needham plays him as a louche and petulant teenager), pushing his authority to the limits, commenting, “I’m tired of being loved – I want to be feared.” If Racine is speculating about what kind of Emperor Britannicus might have been, Alexander Vlahos portrays an idealistic and hot-headed young man, well-meaning and ardent in his love for Junia, but no match for the courtly machinations that conspire to destroy him.
There’s no mother quite like a Roman mother (perhaps the play ought to be called Agrippina) and Sian Thomas’s frostily sensual and conniving matron of impeccable lineage very much dominates the proceedings in a gripping portrayal of a relationship between a mother and son in extraordinary circumstances. Agrippina is scornful of the powerful men from whom she is descended, unable to claim power herself as a woman, and schemes to realise her ambitions through her son. When she cannot bear the thought of losing her Nero to another woman or to the Empire itself, her jealousy manifests into something almost vampiric.
There is something (to my mind) inherently static about Racine’s style, in which the most exciting moments take place off-stage and are reported second-hand (as in Greek tragedies), though Wertenbaker’s robust use of language lends the story a contemporary resonance. The ending is a beginning in itself that demands a sequel as the real horrors of Nero’s reign have only just begun – if ever there was an argument against inherited power (take for instance the Middle Eastern dynasties very much in the news at present), this is it.
Britannicus is playing at Wilton’s Music Hall until 19 November. For more information and tickets, see the Wilton’s Music Hall website.