Boudica is more a crowd pleaser than a brain teaser, but it does what it sets out to do with conviction and panache, and only occasional grinding of stylistic gears. There are some very fine performances at its heart and a clear, commanding narrative line, with a good alternation of crowded set pieces and revealing monologues, all well delivered. All-in-all a fitting close to an eventful, if uneven, season.
So we come to the end of the Globe’s tribute to the ‘Summer of Love’, in the form of a new full-length play by Tristan Bernays about Queen Boudica of the Iceni, who led a remarkably successful revolt against Roman occupation in the reign of the Emperor Nero in revenge for the brutal treatment and dishonour she and her daughters had experienced when they attempted to claim their inheritance after the death of Boudica’s husband, a Roman vassal and ally.
There is not much love to be found in this bloody tale to be sure, but in many ways it is a fitting end-point to Emma Rice’s reign at the Globe. Even though she is not the director here the evening has many of the merits of her Kneehigh style as it has migrated to the South Bank.
There are a series of splendid leadership roles for women, the full range of the space at the Globe is used (characters abseiling down into the ‘wooden O’); there is a fairly heavy dose of modern theatre-lighting, a free-and-easy (perhaps jarringly easy) mixture of modern demotic with the heightened language of iambic pentameter, and a calculated blending of styles that sometimes, but only sometimes, adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Therefore, those who wish to admire or excoriate these interventions will find much to confirm their enthusiasm or disdain in this production.
Director Eleanor Rhode has packed a full-length evening with incident, conflict and spectacle, often gruesome, ensuring that there is always something to hold your attention even when the text may not. The press night audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience, though the play lacks the charm and sheer verbal dexterity of Nell Gwynn, which served to lift that work into a ready West End transfer.
Bernays knows his Shakespearean Histories and Tragedies well, and the trajectory of character development mirrors these as much as the language often dives back in sixteenth-century parlance. We glimpse the effete and exploitative nature of Roman rule, through a notably camp and whimsical performance from Samuel Collings, as procurator Catus Deciamus, and a delightful series of vignettes from foul-mouthed and homesick Roman squaddies.
They are clearly ready for a fall…
Against this we see Gina Mckee’s Boudica assembling a coalition of rebels with a cunning worthy of Richard III. Using the principle that ‘any enemy of my enemy is my friend’ she cajoles a series of local British tribal leaders to pool resources in an attempt to expel the Romans. An attempt which is initially highly successful.
In good Shakespearean sequence it is in victory, not defeat, that the seeds of dissolution are sown: the coalition does not know what to do with its conquest, and rivalries emerge quickly as well as hitherto unsuspected layers of conflicted weakness in Boudica herself.
Here we shift gears from Shakespeare to Game of Thrones. The personal becomes the political as Boudica’s daughters react in contrasted ways to the brutality of which they are both victims and perpetrators.
One daughter, Blodwynn (Natalie Simpson) embraces the conflict as a cathartic endeavour, whereas the other, Alonna (Joan Iyiola) repudiates it and deplores the fact that the Britons have simply in victory imitated the oppressive excesses of the Romans especially against ordinary citizens caught up in the conflict.
Boudica, torn between her political and maternal roles, cannot hold things together, and the Britons go down to defeat at the hands of the ruthlessly focused Roman general Suetonius (Clifford Samuel).
These middle sections of the play are the most engrossing and intricately devised, in terms of both action and debate, before the final set pieces of Boudica’s elaborate death by poison and the last irreconcilable confrontation between the two daughters.
There are good opportunities here for Forbes Masson as Cunobeline, the leader who seeks to find compromise in every situation, Abraham Popoola’s uncompromisingly violent and aggressive Badvoc, and Clifford Samuel, Suetonius, who like many a Fortinbras character, seeks to understand in several monologues what has gone before.
Utimately though, the play belongs to Gina Mckee, who is a magnetic presence of poise and passion whenever she is on stage. She embraces the heightened rhetoric as needed, while also getting down and dirty in the military action too.
Her gentler side, a tender concern for her abused daughters, is ultimately her undoing in the plot, but it is a strength of her performance that she presents this without compromise or dissimulation. This makes her final isolation and sense of failure all the more poignant.
The two daughters are excellently distinguished from one another, and both very accomplished in the practical demands of their parts – including some very creditable swords(wo)manship! Simpson captures the brittle fragility of her character behind a harshly assumed façade, which she is tragically unable to go beyond; and Iyiola offers a broad palette of humanity and compassion that is highly sympathetic to view, and an essential antidote to the prevailing two-dimensional blood and gore elsewhere.
As we move towards the end of the play, some important points are made about how all refugees are ultimately equal and that violence has an alarming tendency to beget further violence on all sides, until exhaustion sets in. Alonna is the vehicle for these thoughts, and whatever positives remain visible above the body count.
All credit, as usual at the Globe, to a talented and diverse ensemble, shuffling the pack of a variety of roles. There are also some more detailed minor role performances from Kate Handford as a Roman refugee and Anna-Maria Nabirye, who weaves in and out of the action as the goddess Andraste, Boudica’s inspiration.
Fight directors and choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves have done good work in ensuring the vast apron of the Globe is fully used and without repetition: here three projections into the groundling space are useful. Some impressive wigs and woad put in an appearance and costumes strike a fair balance between period accuracy and symbolic status. Two musicians set up some impressive cacophonous percussive effects in the gallery and composer Jules Maxwell wittily inserts two songs by The Clash in the second half.
This play is more a crowd pleaser than a brain teaser, but it does what it sets out to do with conviction and panache, and only occasional grinding of stylistic gears. There are some very fine performances at its heart and a clear, commanding narrative line, with a good alternation of crowded set pieces and revealing monologues, all well delivered. All-in-all a fitting close to an eventful, if uneven, season.