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Theatre review: Britannicus 
4th-Nov-2011 10:33 pm
There's a lot of clear plastic (chairs and curtains) in Chloe Lamford's design for Britannicus, and the clean modernity works well in contrast with the decayed Victorian grandeur of its surroundings at Wilton's Music Hall. Racine's play about power leading to madness is done here in a new version by Timberlake Wertenbaker, whose poetic but unpretentious translations I always enjoy. Britannicus was the Emperor Claudius' son and due to inherit the throne, but his stepmother Agrippina (Sian Thomas) manipulated her own son Nero (Matthew Needham) into the position. As Nero is notorious as the maddest of Roman Emperors (and he's hardly short of competition for that title) you can guess she'll soon regret helping him. She's starting to do so at the start of the play as her son has stripped her of power so she sets up a marriage between Britannicus and Junia which could strenghten any attempt by the former to reclaim his throne. But Nero has fallen for Junia (Hara Yannas) who's genuinely in love with Alexander Vlahos' puppyish, hipster Britannicus, so, not realising how far Nero is willing to abuse his power, the two have no intention of being split up.

Irina Brown's production makes good use of the space, sparingly but effectively bringing in the balcony that surrounds the stage, and makes for a tight, gripping telling of the story. The two central performances are excellent, Thomas' Agrippina first appearing wild-haired in pyjamas, a woman used to having control and not knowing how to deal with having lost it; Needham resists the temptation to go all "crazy" acting and gives us a petulant, violently capricious Nero. The story keeps the two apart for most of the play but when they finally have a scene together it doesn't disappoint and, like most of the play, keeps you guessing. The rest of the cast is also good, matters complicated by Jude Akudwuke's well-intentioned adviser Burrhus, and Christopher Colquhoun's freed slave Narcissus, playing both sides against each other. There's many intelligent, manipulative characters on stage but when it comes down to it this may not help them as it's the craziest one who has all the power.

Britannicus by Jean Racine in a version by Timberlake Wertenbaker is booking until the 19th of November at Wilton's Music Hall.
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