tue 25/06/2024

Boudica, Shakespeare's Globe review - ancient history made compellingly contemporary | reviews, news & interviews

Boudica, Shakespeare's Globe review - ancient history made compellingly contemporary

Boudica, Shakespeare's Globe review - ancient history made compellingly contemporary

A British queen brought to life: Tristan Bernays’s new play fits its venue perfectly

Gina McKee as Boudica, 'the warrior Queen who made the Romans fear'Images - Steve Tanner

History comes to the stage of the Globe only rarely – at least if you compare the frequency of productions there from that segment of the Shakespearean canon against the tragedies and comedies – which is certainly one reason to welcome Boudica.

Much more importantly, however, Tristan Bernays's new play offers a crackingly powerful central female role, one which puts the first-century British queen right at the centre of the narrative. It’s one that has the kind of sheer dramatic grandeur that admits contradiction of character, and Gina McKee has made it her own.

Given that Bernays has written much of his play in iambic pentameters, there’s no avoiding going back to the bard himself for frames of reference. I couldn’t help catching glimpses in the title role here of great Shakespearean heroines as diverse as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, which is high praise for both the writing and McKee’s performance. There may be a hint of Lear, and especially Cymbeline in the setting, though this version of early Britain is far more material than mythic, its inhabitants defined by their varieties of wildness which are set against the studied civilisation that is the dominant tone of the Roman occupation.Boudica, Shakespeare's GlobeBernays structures the edifice of his play confidently, leading us into the action through a scene-setting chorus, played with calypso nimbleness by Bethan Clark. Then we're straight into a trio of Roman sentinels complaining about the hardship of their northern posting – “I don’t think the summer ever comes” – to bring the tone rather comically back down to earth. Boudica certainly explores the vernacular vividly: there's a lot of effing and blinding, occasionally perhaps overused even as it contrasts nicely with the elevation of the “higher” verse.

The setting is Camulodunum (today’s Colchester, the first capital of Roman Britain), where the effete procurator Catus Deciamus (Samuel Collings) has assembled the tribal kings for a feast marking the death of King Prasutagus, the late leader of the Iceni. Although Rome has clearly allowed these local rulers a degree of nominal autonomy – there's something perhaps of the princely states of British India – it’s clear that Catus controls the economic strings, and with them the balance of power.

This is accomplished writing, staged with verve, and played with real aplomb

The dramatic and linguistic register changes appreciably with the appearance of Boudica, the estranged widow of Prasutagus, with her daughters Alonna (Joan Iyiola) and Blodwynn (Natalie Simpson). McKee as Boudica has an impressive bearing that belies the relative slightness of her figure, her nobility and independence ringing out clearly as she utters her claim to half of her late husband’s inheritance. She’s no match, however, for the slick casuistry of Catus, who counters that the profligate monarch had practically pawned his estate to the Romans for drink, and that anyway Roman law works differently from British law. He certainly leaves no room for argument, promptly ordering Boudica to be flogged and her daughters raped by the entire garrison. So much for so-called civilisation…

But Boudica is determined on action, her ambition no less than to expel the colonisers from the island (there are loose allusions aplenty to Brexit, though they are more multi-faceted than direct). She sets about bringing together an alliance of other tribal rulers, uniting an unlikely coalition that includes the diplomatic Cunobeline (Forbes Masson, engaging with a Scottish twang) alongside the ferocious Badvoc, played massively by Abraham Popoola (“there’s madness, then there’s Badvoc”: Popoola, pictured below).

But their initial military success in storming Camulodunum precipitates a denouement that will divide the Icenian queen, her daughters and their allies. Raising a modern issue, it hinges on the treatment of prisoners; the Brexit references are muddied by the fact that any nostalgia for “this isle as it once was” is hard to reconcile with the savagery that is the habit of the victor. Bernays further complicates our perspectives through the presence of another Roman leader, Suetonius (Clifford Samuel), an outsider who stands apart from the rest of the venal imperial pack, and he gets most of the play’s soliloquies to convey his point of view.Boudica, Shakespeare's GlobeSuch elements make us ponder to what extent Bernays was aiming for cod Shakespeare, and his narrative structure occasionally can’t avoid seeming too reliant on the kind of interspersing scenes that occupy a page or two of text. But if Boudica may not quite live up to its venue linguistically, in dramatic terms Eleanor Rhode’s production absolutely does, mixing stylisation with moments of powerful stillness: she keeps the action agile, and uses the full opportunities of the space, abseiling included. Tom Piper’s design adapts the stage with similar inventiveness (and contrasts the two opposing sides beautifully through distinctions of colour), backed up by Malcolm Rippeth’s original lighting design (which gives particular atmosphere to Boudica's last moments), and a drum-led score from Jules Maxwell.

We even get a couple of raucous Clash songs in the second half, the kind of touch that in some of the Globe’s recent transpositions of setting – I’m remembering this Summer of Love season-opener  Romeo and Juliet particularly – has come across as very hokey indeed, but here somehow fits most engagingly. A number of productions from Emma Rice’s short tenure seem to have riven audiences (who loved them) apart from critics (who largely didn’t). It’s not the least achievement of Boudica that it leaves no such impression: this is most accomplished writing, staged with verve, and played with real aplomb.

Catus certainly leaves no room for argument, promptly ordering Boudica to be flogged and her daughters raped by the entire garrison


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters