“By Jupiter’s arsehole”, but I came out of the first half of Tristan Bernay’s new play at The Globe, Boudica, feeling confused. Was this a masterstroke, to commission a bold new work with such obvious political overtones, considering Brexit, but partly in street-squaddie speak and partly in semi-Shakespearian Iambic pentameter? With the stark backdrop of a bronzed army stockade, to conjure the sense of Roman occupied Britain and a whirlwind of writhing, dancing forms, amid the stage smoke, was I being given a truly filmic experience, as the writer and director seem to have hoped? Yet if so, why was I beginning to feel bored?
I had high hopes as the female Goddess- narrator first conjures the piece like some Druidical incantation, since the story of the British warrior queen was really rediscovered in the 16th Century, and the sudden interjections of antique modernisms like Jupiter’s arsehole were both funny and seemed to work, at first. Gina McKee is an actress I love, and as the dispossessed wife of a British King in bed with the decadent Romans, until the soldiers arrive from back home to inject some martial steel, offered a striding, heroic feminism, driven on and justified by Boudica’s own beating and the appalling rape of her two daughters by an entire Roman garrison. The problem was that in fact the language and poetry are just not very good, both derivative and becoming a kind of Shakespearean pastiche, while the play itself is a stockade of non relationships. Where were the quislings, the Britain’s really in bed with the Romans, in love or lust, the cross cultural relationships beyond a Monty Python cry of “what have the Romans ever done for us?”, the grit, grime and high life too, to give these characters any real reality and make this a play? Bernays should study Christopher Logue’s astonishing War Music, a modern translation of Homer, to see how a poet can make the centuries come alive with thrilling modern resonance.
For those of us who remember the shock and hoo-ha caused by the National’s production of the Roman’s in Britain though, the nasty bits precipitating revolt and tragic bloodletting just aren’t very shocking, or moving either, perhaps we’ve all seen too much on all those films, and from there the play fails to find a real centre to support all the noise and pseudo poetry, as the drums go on beating. There is some good choreography, Samuel Collings is particularly entertaining as the effete Roman consul in charge of the collapse, Catus Deciamus, and Boudica’s daughters are both great, if they had the lines. I did wake up a little when the entire cast at the start of the second half, again summoning that ensemble player’s tradition, do a thumping rendition of The Clash’s “London’s Calling’, though as if from absolutely nowhere. The actors clearly thrilling to their presence so close to the site of Shakespeare’s original Globe by the Thames when they proudly belt out “Down by the River!” But in the meantime, Londoners were largely Remainers and they felt like actors in need of a cause, or a really articulate voice.
Perhaps that’s the problem, when you can’t believe that all the skill, artistry, and money of the Globe and some great actors too wasn’t directed towards Boudica precisely because the artistic powers-that-be felt it would be highly topical and highly political too, and yet Tristan Bernays says he is not a political writer. There seems a problem there from the start, for Shakespeare could be unashamedly political, so much so that his Roman plays directly sounded contemporary events in Elizabethan England and punters flocked to the literally life and death debate. Which is why the RSC did so well to try and make something of Cymbeline and Brexit.
What Bernays is, meanwhile, or wants to be, is a ‘portentous’ writer. The play aches to be significant and of course the three tribe union and split inevitably echoes all that is going on with Brexit and the Union. But if a point is being made, I couldn’t see what it is. There are no true character arcs, or internal jeopardies, and in the end Boudica is just spikely lofty, though with splendid posture, and disappears back into Myth. Sure, it calls to a certain atavistic instinct certainly around to tell everyone to fuck off and let rip, it makes great points as a black actress cries “I was born here”, and Roman Britain was more multicultural than we realise. It ends with a portentous note about the horrors to come, as the stockade literally cracks up. But in reality our perceptions of and problems with that Treaty of Rome today have little or nothing to do with whatever really happened in Boudica’s story and Europe is hardly any invading army. In that the play’s desire somewhere to Brexitly stick it to them too is somewhat irresponsible, while having its cake and eating it, in warning of the darkness below the surface. But in the end that wasn’t my problem with it, but the fact it doesn’t really go anywhere, misfires some very noisy energies and in the last analysis, to quote the man himself, and his real poetry, “is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
David Clement-Davies saw Boudica courtesy of The Globe Theatre. For tickets Click Here