Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Review Boudica (PREVIEW)

by Tristran Bernays

No Man's Land

Many of us (ok, TLT and her own metallic chariot) had previously only the vaguest impression of a Celtic  warrior queen Boudica with flowing locks taking on allcomers and emerging victorious.

The life of Boudica, whose image has varied according to the world picture of those who wrote about her, had a more tragic trajectory than we realised and is now the subject of a vigorous new verse play by Tristan Bernays filling the Shakespeare's Globe stage.

It's certainly an apt and clever choice, for it feels like a Shakespearean story, a proud Queen uniting the British tribes against the might of the Roman Empire.

However, it also feels appropriate to wonder if Shakespeare's pen would have chided her for hubris and unfeminine behaviour in more certain terms than the imperial Victorian image of the queen of Iceni tribe handed down more recently.

The Queen is a historical figure wrapped in a myth and probably an appropriate heroine for our double edged Brexit age. In the present version, it's woman power but also with a certain amount of questioning and a non pejorative modern slant.

But of course before Brexit there was Game Of Thrones and various swashbuckling mythological and historical TV serials in a Hollywood genre which has enjoyed a revival of popularity in recent times.

Directed by Eleanor Rhode, Boudica's life  makes for an epic re-telling, often in verse, with plenty of energy. If it is a tad unsubtle in its television-like structure and modern mash up, it still demands to be taken on its own terms as a tale of adventure and betrayal.

The writer himself says in the programme he wants to make a blockbuster action film onstage with battling women at its centre. And just as much as colonialization, it is a dramatic discussion of war including a hint of Cold War as defeat closes in.

Again it may not always be subtle, baldly questioning when defence becomes attack in a debate over the nature of conflict in post Second World War terms. But reiteration in the baldest terms suits the energetic style and there's a pleasing working of the audience as the British tribes rally.

Preceded by a drumming soundscape and  narrator (Anna-Maria Nabirye) dressed in the uniform of African rebels and child soldiers, the martial widowed Boudica (Gina McKee) and her two daughters, clad in robes with weapons at their side, make their regal entrances.

They have arrived to claim their share of the kingdom of the Iceni. Their husband and father had enjoyed favours including loans,  as a client king, from the Roman conquerors.

However expediently for the colonizers including the fey procurator Caius Deciamus (Samuel Collings) in a knatty brocade coat, suited and booted in cuban heels, Roman law only recognizes primogeniture and there's not a male heir in sight. 

Far from recognizing the danger and a hierarchy where woman are not even recognized as minor players, the Queen protests and is bound and lashed with a whip by soldiers while her daughters Blodwyn (Natalie Simpson) and Alonna (Joan Iyola) are given as trophies of empire to the troops and raped starting a cycle of rebellion and revenge.

The action takes place on a plain but versatile wooden stage, designed by Tom Piper, with ladders against the Globe's pillars backed by a stockade with simple but effective extras coming in as they are needed.

There may not be an especially complex subtext and we wondered whether rape was defined then in the same terms as now. The modern colonial elements are signposted a mile (or is that 1,609 metres?!) off,  but historical and mythical movies and TV series have conditioned us to such mash ups and artistic licence.   .

There's some zombie choreography (choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves)  lots of clashing swords, a spectacular aerial attack, a seering curse and bloody revenge.

The chief of the Belgics (Abraham Popoola),is a charasmatic huge punk tree trunk of a man, "There's madness and there's Badvoc!". The uneasy unification of the tribes under Boudica is sealed by Cunobeline (Forbes Masson), another chieftain who overomes his doubts,  with  a rock concert rendition of The Clash's London Calling.

The jokes are sometimes of the Monty Python/Blackadder genre but with more swearing: "Honey of course he's got news, he's the f******g messenger!". Boudicca  may not be the most complicated of characters, written as veering between the military and motherhood, but gives a stirring mix of Elizabeth I and Henry V rhetoric standing in front of the microphone to urge her troops.

There may be a risk of the lines descending into the parodic when we hear, "What has Rome done to you? and there are shades of the musical Salad Days in a scifi deus ex machina as Boudicca falters. However another piece of action makes sure the audience just takes in the visuals and doesn't stop to think too much.

Another softer dynamic is introduced through the younger daughter Alonna. A meeting with the enemy general (Clifford Samuel) ends in a glimmer of more civilised behaviour when he promises honourably he will insure she leaves free of harm.

It's clunky, perhaps trying to pile in too many issues,  but also funky and the cleverest thing about it is a reversal of the TV genre, which draws on classic literature, back into Shakespearean stage terms. It certainly could also work in even bigger venues and it's not often TLT would say that,, so it's an amber/green light!

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