FringeReview UK 2017
This fourteen-strong Boudica premieres at the Globe, directed by Eleanor Rhode. Jules Maxwell’s drum-kit music and arrangements of two pop standards, is directed by Louise Anna Duggan with Calie Hough on the kit. There’s lighting too by Malcolm Rippeth. Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown deserve credit for the thrilling fight-scenes throughout, with choreography by Tom Jackson-Greaves. Till October 1st.
You’d never believe Tristan Bernays has never written a full-cast play before. Indeed a one-man show and two-hander has handed him one of Globe Director Emma Rice’s most impressive acts of faith in a newcomer. This fourteen-strong Boudica premiered at the Globe, directed by Eleanor Rhode with an impressive use of boards and reveals by designer Tom Piper, goes one further too.
Nodding to its environment for a start it’s a History play, in blank verse with fine demotic twists of rhyme, punctuated by Jules Maxwell’s drum-kit music and arrangements of two pop standards in a way you’d never guess, directed by Louise Anna Duggan with Calie Hough on the kit. There’s dreaded lighting too, surely allowed in a modern play, by Malcolm Rippeth, out of the bowels of the space behind those normally shut doors. With vernacular handling slightly different to the cool ironic blank-verse surfaces of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III it dares what blank verse should: poetry. Like Bartlett’s blank verse it employs over-exact word order and syntax closer to Shakespeare than now, which Bartlett uses to comic effect; but unlike Bartlett Bernays plays with archaisms. If these are brand-new ancients though, as he proclaims (winking at Kate Tempest’s performance poetry volume), there’s a heart in a hurry, a freewheeling energy fizzing from Gina McKee in the title role to the multi-roling soldiers. There’s no doubt too that though it doesn’t always sound like blank verse delivered in the approved manner the energy of it infuses the company. There’s certainly less sawing the air than sawing hapless victims.
Bernays has both history and licence for what he can do. The Romans told the story in conflicting versions by Tacitus and the later Cassius Dio, but there are creative blanks, particularly regarding the fate of Boudica’s two daughters, given names here, played by Natalie Simpson, as Blodwynn, and Alonna, by Joan Iyiola. Simpson, recently in Shirley’s The Cardinal at Southwark and with the RSC in three productions, always impresses with clear voice and palpable rationale. Here, too she adds the compass of ferocity.
Iyiola’s opposing role as Venus to her sister’s Mars, reacts differently to her violation at the start: you see why Boudica feels she, the younger, will make the finer queen. Alonna’s nuanced sense of justice is literal foil to her sister, in that as Bernays claims delightedly, he could fashion a play where women use swords, even on occasion, fighting each other. Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown deserve credit for this and the thrilling fight-scenes throughout.
There’s an actively danced prologue by the British spirit of Victory, Andraste, eloquently pointed by Anna-Maria Nabirye though for once Bernays’ energy gets the better of him: it’s a bit too long and exposes a lack of varietal argument in verse which can draw out delivery. It’s an impressive gambit though with choreography by Tom Jackson-Greaves throughout.
We start properly with the outrages shown to Boudica and her two daughters, the mother flogged, the daughters raped for claiming the rightly-allotted half of the throne of Boudica’s recently-deceased husband. This was Prasutagus British client-king of the Iceni in Camulodunum, modern-day Colchester. But it’s been seized on the orders of Procurator Catus Deciamus, here played with winningly vicious snake-charm by Samuel Collings, garnering the villain’s laugh and hiss in an impossible foppish gold coat. Naturally he deals with the three savagely.
Proceeding rapidly to neighbouring tribe the Trinovantes, McKee, shading her voice with her ordeals but still wholly dominating with vocal energy and a certain regality, beards Forbes Masson’s eloquent, politically underwhelmed Cunobeline (better-known as Cymbeline). Egged on by Tok Stephen’s fiery Clothen (a name Shakespeare also of course uses) the vengeance rises and the three stock soldiers portrayed in their I, Claudius-style jokes and rapine – Brian Martin’s sardonic Sestus, Owen Findlay’s quicker-witted Lucius, and Tok Stephens’ quick-change back to hapless Cato – feel the full force of it, as does Camulodunum.
To strains of ‘London’s Burning’ led by Masson’s MC-ing Cunobeline, the second half and fourth act explodes with Londinium’s trashed town and visceral genocide. Its where tensiosn between warrior sister Blodwynn finds Alonna too nice sparing a Romano-Britsh girl, Jenny Fitzpatrick’s initially terrified, later thoughtful Silvia, whose physician husband has been slaughtered. In an earlier episode, Boudica has concurred, merely cutting out the tongue of the Roman officer so he can take that message back to his superiors. There’s a gentler joke on Brian Martin’s messenger Sejanus: his scarf, over gold garb echoing Catus, gets longer and longer till he trips over it.
Bernays persuasively explores Alonna’s growing sense of how she’s merely on the mirror side of Roman outrage, reacting as she has all along with thoughtfulness and identification with others: the very thing Boudica by sad irony identifies as queenly in her. Silvia was born not thirty miles off. The 70-80,000 who died in the sacking of these and Verolamium (St Albans) were often Romano-British and Alonna’s journey away from vengeance confronting her mother is the gradually rending narrative as events draw them apart, particularly from her sister’s or mother’s language, describing victims as ‘monsters’. McKee’s portrayal is shot through here though with recognition and tenderness for her daughter despite being self-directed to bloody thoughts.
McKee’s Boudica rears up straight like a tautened bow, lets fly invective increasingly at her own side as she’s re-brutalised. Her voice registers flashes of arrogance and overreach; and curiously in tune with this mythic sense also melts into the accidie of flow, of fatalism. Bernays cleverly shows how her daughters spring from each strand, how a queen perhaps needs both.
There’s a tremendous part tremendously taken. Chief in all senses among these is Abraham Popoola’s magnificent Badvoc, king of the fighting Belgae. He towers and orates magnificently over the rest of the cast, though McKee’s cutting arguments match and dare him beyond what anyone deems wise. It’s Badvoc whose casual awarding of the captured Silvia to his soldiers – challenged by Alonna – who initially threatens to splinter the alliance.
But it’s McKee’s flawed regality, sometimes too quick to condemn, lacking Cunobeline’s frayed capacity to parlay, that generates the creative tension of these part-time allies. To Badvoc’s iambic ‘And see what discipline you do command’ her ‘Shut your mouth you stinking piece of shit’ underscores rhythmically how far gone in judgement she is. Cunobline’s riposte to her taunt ‘What friend are you?’ satisfies in its simplicity: ‘The only one you have left!’ Still, when it comes to confronting the outnumbered but wily Suetonius, Clifford Samuel’s noble anguished Roman, they’re all deep in it together.
It’s Samuel’s troubled doubting character who provides a true sparring partner as it were to Alonna’s peace-seeking. His considered reaction forms the nub of Bernays’ argument: both these characters recognize the need for peace and an end to the eternal reciprocity of tears. But does anyone else?
There’s a final scene with Boudica, and a different encounter between the two daughters which might have been placed before. It’s a difficult call. We think we know the end, and there’s a surprise gloss here. The afterlife of the daughters is fruitful speculation and Bernays also underlines renewal, however bleak. Suetonius’ prediction is that that ‘like a tide the war will ebb/With or without me, back and forth, until/There’s nothing left but sand and dust.’ Alonna’s that ‘The thunder will soon come, and the land will crack’ is hardly more cheering. It’s not quite clear where dire predictions are aimed. Roman retribution followed by nearly four centuries of peace, the Saxons, Vikings, Normans, French Germans or Brexit. The final scenes though, touch depths Bernays has prepared for in the play and augurs well – perhaps not in the released-hare-direction sense of Boudica – for his next play.
There’s never been a rendition of ‘I fought the law, and the law won’ led again by Masson with quite such stakes or brio as this. And maybe it’s all true too. Do see this, a magnificent and largely successful attempt to revive History plays, with an energy and on occasion subtlety that with justice should bring us more large-scale Bernays.