It’s a big ask for a weekday in Hammersmith: a radical reworking of Jean Racine’s 17th century French verse play about Nero’s metamorphosis from Rome’s brat-emperor into its psycho tyrant. At least adapter Timberlake Wertenbaker prunes the action – if that’s the right word for something so declamatory and explanatory – back to 95 minutes, which is a blessing.
Atri Banerjee’s half-solemn, half-ironic production is mounted on a starkly lit stage, largely bare apart from conference chairs, a water-cooler, a tapestry of Romulus and Remus and a stuffed wolf. It features some fine performances, though sadly not from It’s a Sin star Nathaniel Curtis in the already-insipid title role of Nero’s rival stepbrother. The knot of political, filial and incestuous sexual tension in the story is so tight and specific that the idea of contemporary relevance is laughable. Yes, Nero is a murderous dictator. Yes, there are murderous dictators in the world today. Duh.
Fair play to the Lyric and Banerjee, though: it’s a bold and admirable move to tackle Racine, who’s rarely done. And to be honest, if this production had been staged by a European guru at the Edinburgh Festival two decades ago, it would have been feted. But all the way through I kept thinking – why here, why now, why make this more difficult than it already is?
Nero is married to Britannicus’s sister Octavia but falls for his stepbrother’s beloved, Junia, wooing her with “tender sighs, or when I needed to, terrible threats”. His mother Agrippina – who married her uncle, Britannicus’s father Claudius, for advantage - manoeuvres between them all, trying to maintain her influence. Sundry courtiers jockey for power. If this sounds complicated, don’t worry: characters regularly step to the front of the stage to explain it all.
William Robinson is riveting throughout as Nero, sometimes a sobbing child, sometimes a cold-eyed killer, barefoot and dressed in white boyband athleisure. By contrast, Sirine Saba’s steely Agrippina is in dominatrix black and patent heels. The red gown of Shyvonne Ahmmad’s Scottish-accented Junia expresses her breast-thumping anguish. While everyone else is stridently emoting and intoning, Curtis’s ponytailed Britannicus meanders through the action like someone who’s put on his best shirt then got lost at a regional nightclub.
Banerjee and designer Rosanna Vize provide striking images – the cast convulsing as if electrified at pivotal moments, ash falling from the ceiling at Nero’s fratricide, violinist Hanna Khogali acting as accompanist and observer to the unfolding tragedy. It’s both too much and too little: a vivid conceptual imposition that nonetheless leaves the play looking talky and static. The last major London revival of Britannicus, at the Almeida with a cast including Diana Rigg and Toby Stephens, was 24 years ago. Maybe with good reason.
Lyric Hammersmith, to June, 25; lyric.co.uk