At its heart, Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith is a drama about a toxic family who happens to be the ruling class. Agrippina (Sirine Saba), Claudius' fourth wife, persuaded her husband to adopt her son Nero (William Robinson) and make him his heir, passing over Britannicus (Nathaniel Curtis), his son by his third wife.
Nero has spent the early part of his reign as an inspiring leader, but he is suffocating under the control of his mother, so he starts freezing her out, which triggers a power battle between the two. Then he falls in love with Junia (Shyvonne Ahmmad), Britannicus' fiancée, and things get really nasty.
The play might be called Britannicus, but it's really about Nero and his mother.
Robinson's Nero is like a hormonal teenager at times, petulant and peevish. At others, he is dangerous and erratic; his mood turns on a dime in behaviour that reminds me of more than one comic book villain.
Little boy lost
But there are also faint signs of a simple desire to be loved, which emerge in rare moments of tenderness with those around him. When pitted directly against his mother, he can appear like a little boy lost—someone who wanted hugs rather than being groomed for power.
And as a result, despite the terrible things he does, I did feel sorry for him on occasion.
Saba's Agrippina is a formidable force who doesn't take kindly to losing control of her son. She is manipulative and has a temper - something she has perhaps passed on.
Curtis' Britannicus has little agency; rather, he is a pawn in the power battle, at best a trusting innocent for which he earns some empathy but also at times frustratingly naive about what is going on around him.
You can see the penny drop moment, and I confess, at times the character had me rolling my eyes. He's like a mouse trapped in an empty room with a bunch of cats; you know it isn't going to end well.
Ahmmad's Junia is the brains in that couple and earns true sympathy as the one trying to save the situation with what little agency she has, even if it means making extreme sacrifices.
Staged simply with a large square rug and chairs around the outside which get rearranged (the seats of power?). There are bursts of movement, a trembling and shaking, but what it symbolises, I'm not sure.
At one point, Junia crawls around the edge of the stage on her hands and knees. Again I'm not sure what that was adding.
Where the movement worked well is when characters are symbolically tipped off chairs or thrown, so the chairs scatter. They also get rearranged to create different spaces, although, on one occasion, this felt more like a device to create time for a costume change.
Hanna Khogali, who plays Agrippina's confidante Albine, plays the violin between scenes; it is often haunting, sometimes chilling and beautifully adds to the tone of the piece.
While there were elements of Britannicus that felt like hollow embellishment, and I'm not sure my response to some characters was the desired effect, as a family drama and power struggle, it was a gripping yarn. I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
Britannicus, Lyric Hammersmith
Written by Jean Racine
Translated and adapted by Timerlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Atri Banerjee
Running time: 100 minutes without an interval.
Booking until 25 June; for more information and tickets, head to the Lyric's website.