Return of the Roman entertainment

Chris Bush experiences an epic night at the Sheffield Crucible.

Howard Brenton’s epic drama The Romans in Britain opened last week at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield amidst a storm of publicity (in The Guardian at least). Directed by Sam West, this is the first professional revival of the play since its infamous debut at the National in 1980, which saw its director Michael Bogdanov facing charges at the Old Bailey for ‘procuring an act of gross indecency’. The act in question is the on-stage rape of a young druid by a Roman soldier. While this doesn’t make for comfortable viewing, the scene is handled deftly by West who makes the moment all the more unsettling by the general indifference of the other soldiers who chatter away in the foreground while the rape takes place behind them. Certainly none of the violence or nudity in the piece has been shirked away from, with no less than six nude males cavorting and cart-wheeling across the stage, yet undoubtedly its impact has lessened since its first appearance.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Back in the eighties all the press talked about was this one moment and the following scandal, whereas now we can watch and appreciate the play as a whole rather than get hung up on a single issue. It is a shame, then, that the writing itself doesn’t stand up to a less hysterical analysis. While bold, brave and shocking in its day, Brenton’s script now seems dated, moralising and clumsily didactic in its exposition and themes.

Part of the problem is the scale of the piece. A cast of seventeen play over forty parts on a time scale which ranges from Julius Caesar’s invasion of England to the present day troubles in Ireland. Rather than being ambitious, the epic scope leaves little room left for individual characterisation and the parallels drawn between these different eras of oppression and conquest would have been far more effective were we left to make them ourselves. As it stands, the connection is crudely hammered home at every opportunity and, as we jump from analogy to analogy, we never stop in one place for long enough to feel for the oppressed or detest the oppressor. This is a pity, since when he is not lecturing us Brenton’s dialogue sparkles with ruthless wit, dark humour and bleak humanity. Furthermore, many of his characters have the potential to be fascinating, should we be allowed to know them.

The acting is almost faultless all round, but with so few characters to work with and so many jerkins, helmets and combats to fill, the company have a tough job. Tom Mannion’s Caesar stands out as a ‘real’ figure, whose sharp tongue and icy delivery both chilled and entertained the audience. His is a truly excellent performance, but perhaps his task is made easier by the fact that this is the only part he has to play. He can enter a scene, dominate it, and be dramatically viable in doing so, rather than be forced to fill in the background detail to get the author’s message across.

My real problem with The Romans in Britain is that it appears to be little more than a series of show pieces: the notorious rape scene, the appearance of Julius Caesar, a convoluted diatribe on social determinism, a witty aside on King Arthur, that leave an audience emotionally unsatisfied. The same can be said of the set; designed by theatrical veteran Ralph Koltai it immediately looks very impressive. The stage is dominated by a twenty-foot high piece of driftwood, eerily reminiscent of an animal skull, under which lies a sunken pool, deep enough for three actors to swim in.

However, while this is an extraordinary piece of engineering it’s never really justified or used to its full potential, and the forestage where the vast majority of the action takes place looks more like a bowling green than fields or woodland, supporting my impression that this play is about show rather than substance.

Since taking over Sheffield Theatres, Sam West has proved that he is a great actor (as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing) and an accomplished director (in the stunning Insignificance by Terry Johnson). Perhaps the only area he needs to work on now is picking the right plays.

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