Howard Brenton’s epic play of conquest, domination and the corruption of history (as told by the victorious) has a scandalous and dangerous history, one that has kept it away from professional stages for over 25 years.
Famous for a legal battle with Mary Whitehouse over a particularly brutal scene of male rape, as well as for colourful language throughout, it’s not hard to imagine why potential revivalists have been wary. A quarter of a century later, can it maintain its power to shock? And, if not, will it still stand up to the inevitable hype that its history has generated?
Samuel West clearly thinks so, having chosen to make The Romans in Britain his directorial debut both on the Crucible stage, and as Sheffield Theatres’ Artistic Director. It’s a bold choice and, given the confidence and sheer gusto with which it has been executed, a wise one.
The Romans in Britain portrays first the story of the Romans’ arrival in 54 BC, then moves on to cut between 5th century Middle Ages and 1980s Ireland to show parallels between the imperialism of different groups of invaders throughout history. The way these stories are told is classically Brechtian, with strong contrasts between brash, bawdy humour and savage violence, and sudden switches of perspective to prevent the audience becoming too sympathetic with any particular player.
Whilst the raw materials Brenton used to achieve these alienation effects were very relevant in 1980 – audience sensitivity to bad language and nudity, the topical portrayal of the British in Ireland – the core message of the play is still highly relevant today.
Any reduction in shock value due to modern tolerances is more than made up for by the adrenalin-charged nature of the production. Ralph Koltai’s majestic stage design exudes energy before it is even populated with performers. A strange and wonderful sculpture, possibly a rock face or a giant piece of driftwood – or a strange religious icon – dominates the rear of the stage. Underneath lies a deep pool of water, via which some of the characters actually swim onto the stage – and in which the infamous rape scene takes place.
Of course it’s that particular scene that has surrounded so much of the buzz around this revival, so it does demand some individual attention. The scene is still shocking, less in the nudity and more in the nonchalance of the Roman officers, as what they see as an antidote for boredom destroys the life of a young Druid (a superb Dan Stevens). In retrospect it is interesting, perhaps worrying, to contrast this nonchalance with our modern desensitisation to images of brutality and torture, and the role that such images play in 21st century disposable entertainment. As such, Tom Mannion’s Caesar – disapproving, but only for political reasons, of the assault on the Druid – acts as a mirror for today’s media-conscious emperor, who is concerned to maintain a public image as a bastion of civilisation and control. As he scolds his officers: ‘even a little massacre must look like policy.’
The sheer vigour of the first act and its climax, as modern British soldiers suddenly take control of the stage from every direction, inevitably outshines the shorter and slightly more reflective second act. Despite its ongoing relevance, the impact of the Irish story – an immediately contemporary tale and a politically incendiary one when the play was first performed – has inevitably lessened since then.
In fact the one, and probably only, argument you could levy against The Romans in Britain is that the text is a bit top-heavy, putting all of its biggest moments into its first hundred minutes. What a hundred minutes they are though – possibly the most enthralling, captivating, energetic, and stimulating first act that this reviewer has seen on a British stage in many years. And, the second act, whilst losing something in its brevity, loses nothing in its execution.
Any theatregoer within reach of Sheffield shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see this production, for in trying to follow The Romans in Britain, Sam West has set himself the challenge of his career.