july 2016 | volume 145
Ensemble Theatre’s adventurous Summer Repertory Festival 2016 takes on one of late 20th century British theatre’s most contentious plays. Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain set off a firestorm of protest at its premiere in 1980, primarily over a scene in which a Roman soldier anally rapes a Druid priest. That kind of controversy wasn’t new to the lively British political theatre of the era. In 1965, Edward Bond’s Saved had featured a baby stoned to death in its carriage by a group of yobs.
The Romans in Britain actually has more in common with Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine (1979), which juxtaposed satirical scenes of 19th century British colonialism in Africa with life in contemporary London, and played theatrically with gender and race to score points about the parallels between Britain’s imperial past and its sexually and racially oppressive present.
Brenton’s play, which ranges across millennia, sees Romans brutally oppressing Druids, Saxons doing the same to the current natives of the Isles a thousand or so years later, all setting up scenes between British soldiers and Irish rebels/dissidents/victims in the present day. The point seems to be that colonialism and imperialism, and the violence that accompanies them, have been endemic to British life since time immemorial.
Richard Wolfe directs a cast of 17 on the Jericho Arts Centre floor, and his production captures the pointless, cyclical brutality of the history Benton imagined. Raiders murder their victims, families futilely fight to defend their turf, one empire follows another and nothing much changes except for Julie White’s costumes. Ashley O’Connell, in a standout performance as an undercover British agent unmasked by the IRA types he’s trying to infiltrate, cries out the counter-theme: “When will peace come?!” But we’ve previously seen the same actor as a casually brutal Roman general, so the cry rings with fairly obvious irony.
I’m really glad ETC has resurrected this play for a Vancouver audience that doesn’t get to see much angry political theatre. But I’m not sure The Romans in Britain would have had much of an afterlife except for the notoriety that accompanied the original production. It suffers from a kind of nihilism that Churchill’s Cloud Nine, for example, managed to avoid, offering little in the way of alternatives to the cycles of violence from which we still suffer, and struggle to understand and escape.
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