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A CurtainUp London Review
by Neil Dowden
Though named after the ill-fated figure who should have worn the crown, the play’s focus is on Nero, whose mother Agrippina persuaded her late husband (and uncle) Emperor Claudius to declare his heir ahead of his own natural son Britannicus. After a promising beginning to his reign, we see the teenage Emperor Nero giving way to psychotic paranoia as he battles for power with his domineering mother and even younger step-brother, whose love for the beautiful Junia he also resents. The conflict may be mainly dramatized in a series of intimate duologues but the destiny of Rome hangs in the balance.
In true classical style, the action takes place off stage but there is plenty of tension expressed in the dynamics of relationships between characters on stage under Irina Brown’s taut direction. There is a distinctly Freudian quality to Nero and Agrippina’s emotional bond, culminating in her kissing him full on the lips as she exerts her authority over him, while Nero’s sexual jealousy of the more likeable Britannicus is palpable. In Chloe Lamford’s simple but effective design, overturned Perspex chairs intimate disorder, with eavesdropping shadowy figures lurking behind translucent curtains, later opened to reveal a chaotic jumble of antique junk.
As Nero Matthew Needham gives a disturbingly funny portrayal of a tyrant in the making, conveying the inner conflict in which the sociopath triumphs over the statesman. As Agrippina, Sian Thomas delivers a commandingly supercilious performance as an iron maiden determined to bend others to her will. Alexander Vlahos makes an attractively naïve, impetuous Britannicus, stomping along the gallery when in a strop and jumping down off a ladder in excitement, while Hara Yannas lends Junia a touching vulnerability. Jude Akuwudike conveys integrity as the general Burrhus, whose wise advice to Nero is overruled by Christopher Colquhoun’s Machiavellian Narcissus, with Zoë Aldrich giving staunch support as Agrippina’s confidante Albine.
Following on from Cheek by Jowl’s Andromache at the Barbican and the Helen Mirren/National Theatre production of Phèdre last year, Racine seems to be back in vogue on the London stage after some years of neglect. Britannicus may lack some of their elemental tragic force, but it still pierces the human heart with needlepoint precision.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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