Rome might have teemed with power-crazed emperors but if there is one most famed for his despotism it is Nero. Jean Racine’s 1669 play is a study of this tyrant but it comes at its subject matter at a slant – through the story of Britannicus, his stepbrother and rightful heir to the throne, who was poisoned. It is clear at the outset that Nero’s mother, Agrippina, is the kingmaker of this court but the drama’s trajectory shows her losing her hold over the once virtuous Nero. “Bored with being loved, he wants to be feared,” she says.
Atri Banerjee’s thrilling production brings this Roman family into a modern-day court and shows us how old stories can be made terrifically new, with enough fearless imagination. Adapted and translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker, the play’s 17th-century language is exquisitely updated and has a crystalline, lucid quality.
A political drama with a powerful family at its centre, it is the Succession of the Roman era, unpicking not only the dynastic jostling but the nature of power and its relationship to fear. The pathology of tyranny is neatly summarised by Agrippina when she says of Nero: “If he fears me I don’t have to fear him.” Nero’s most corrupt minister knows just what to say to stoke his paranoia, and the counsel of his good adviser is quashed. In a time of rising political intolerance, this is a reminder of how good men are made into monsters, even if it comes across as a little simplified at times.
The drama here is deadly serious and self-satirising at once – a portrait of how a tyrant is made that flips into archness then back again in the blink of an eye. This duality is strangely deft and very winning, the comedy often based round a water cooler at which characters congregate. They variously punch it, as if they are stressed-out Wall Street bankers, or take out too many plastic cups at once, like white-collar workers on a teabreak. Where this may have seemed terribly jarring and even nonsensical, it works to make us laugh and cut this family, pumped up on ego, down to size.
The cast has the look of a glamorous TV-soap dynasty: Sirine Saba’s Agrippina is an Alpha-female Alexis Carrington in svelte power dress and patent heels, and there is something magnificent about seeing a mother who is such a powerful operator, in spite of her scheming. Nathaniel Curtis (of It’s a Sin fame) as Britannicus is godlike in stature but adorably wide-eyed and earnest, while Nero (William Robinson) is a terrifying spoilt brat in a white T-shirt and gold chain, fuelled by fear and envy. He is the JR Ewing of this perverse court where no one can be trusted, where “tears glint like weapons” and where nieces marry their uncles. Britannicus is its pure heart, along with his loyal belle, Junia (Shyvonne Ahmmad, excellent) and so it becomes not just a losing battle to the death between brothers but also one of good over bad.
Every performance is fabulous. So is Rosanna Vize’s stage design, an airy court simply made from chairs that are moved around. A painting at the back shows a detail from Rubens’s Romulus and Remus, featuring the twin brothers as babes next to the salivating she-wolf who is said to have suckled them. It bears an obvious parallel to the story here but also sets a feral tone so that when actors begin to crawl on allfours at emotionally high-pitched moments or judder and curl up in their seats, it heightens the sense of danger and predation where it might easily have seemed mannered.
Is it a penetrating or complicated enough study of power? It doesn’t matter because it is irresistible as a piece of theatre – a production of immense confidence and sass, and one that will leave you simultaneously chilled and chuckling.
At the Lyric Hammersmith, London, until 25 June.