Nero and Agripinna (...and Britannicus too)

One of the great misfortunes of modern theatre is that the French have always 'got' tragedy far more than their Anglo-Saxon cousins; while I would give loose change to Shakespeare or Marlowe (or an unnecessary limb to Webster), I would give blood for Corneille or Racine - yet (perhaps due to our love affair with the bard) the Gallic variety of tragedy is so rarely seen on the British mainstream stage, which is why we should give a hearty two cheers for Irina Brown's new production of Britannicus at the splendid Wilton's Music Hall.

Britannicus is part power intrigue, part psychological drama but totally engrossing as a representation of symbiosis of family and politics in the early Roman Empire. The Emperor Claudius is dead: his heir, his adopted son, Nero, has succeeded through the machinations of his mother (Claudius' widow) to the purple, despite the fact that Britannicus has a more immediate dynastic claim. The play follows Agripinna's struggle to keep her control of her errant son whose advisers try to remove her grip from Nero's throne. And here's the rub (Sorry): despite the name, Britannicus is almost incidental to the drama of the play, except as a pawn in each side's deliberations. This is the story of Nero and Agripinna (Part One).

The cavernous hall of the old music hall find itself as an unexpectedly good place for palace intrigue. The staging is inventive with clear plastic drapes barely concealing a cornucopia of busts and junk behind the skene, highlighting the transparency of secrets and looming presence of the court itself. The atmosphere is palpable as Agrippina (Sian Thomas) opens the play in a paranoid and derelict state as she finds herself out of favour with Nero and his advisers. Ideas of nobility and ignobility pervade the play as the emperor's character is much discussed but then unrealised. Thomas herself is magnificant as the maternal but stricken mother - shades of Margaret Thatcher in her later years? - her performance teetering towards the melodramatic. This is one impressive fete that the Brown carries off: hers is not a production that is afraid of tragic melodrama or even camp. It positively embraces it, which rather than detracts suffuses the play.

We see Nero and Britannicus as not only as brothers but as reflections in a perverted mirror: the near idealism and innocent Britannicus constrasted against his surly and conflicted imperial counterpart as they compete for the affection of Junia (Yana Harras). Their homosexuality is hinted at but never delved into, yet a antagonistic homoeroticism fills their exchanges. While Alexander Vlahos' performance as Britannicus raises the question as to whether he would have made a good emperor (I also could not help but be reminded of Graham Seed in I,Claudius), Matthew Needham brings out the weakness, the careless sadism and vanity of Nero but he manages to this this with a lightness of touch and flashes of humours that impresses and means we never quite condemn him as we ought. Harras herself at first is too detached, even unsympathetic, to convince as Junia but she warms to the role and towards the end, as the pace quickens towards the climax, she brilliantly assumes the role of a Roman Cassandra, near predicting the tragedy but is fated to be ignored. Her performance here is as the Aeschylean swan-song should be: above human but also pungently sad.

The production is near pitch perfect with only a few failings. The translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker is good too. Good? A pathetic and unworthy word. Her translation is elegant and fine; at times forthright, aggressive even, the themes of sight and concealment are delicately woven in words throughout the play such that they create a further dramatic character - the court itself, which sees and hears that which should not be seen, those things the characters would prefer to hide. It is the walls of the palace that have seen Nero and Britannicus grow up. It is the court - the political construct - that is as much a creator of the tragic as the court players. "Why do you feed on the venom that makes you ill?" Albine asks of Agrippina. Because it is there. It is the inherently stifling atmosphere of the palace that makes not just the political drama but the psychological drama of the play.

Thomas, however, dominates the production with all the power of la grande dame. Her Agrippina is the kind of compelling character to whom eyes turn whether she is speaking or not - there are hints of the grotesque: was that Dynasty I spied there? The reconciliation scene between Nero and Agripinna builds momentum thrillingly and, just as one thinks that the incest is being underplayed, mother and son kiss. Here too another of the play's subthemes is brought out. Why is Agripinna, despite her capabilities, so despised by the Roman establishment? Because you're a woman, says Nero. It is both a statement of reality but it is also subversive as it merely underlines Nero's weaknesses. (Perhaps too a subtle reminder of the double standards woman face in public life.) It is the skill of the playwright that as Britannicus dies, finally poisoned at the command of her erstwhile brother, the tragedy goes beyond his death: they are all tragic characters now from Agripinna, who becomes resigned to her loss of power and son's fate to Nero, who makes the fatal choice that abandons any pretensions he had to govern wisely and gives way to the basest instincts of his character.

It is tempting to say that, with such material, how could one fail to please? Yet others have and will do so in the future. In fact, the reputation of Britannicus as a play only increased slowly to its present state as a favourite of the Comédie Francaise. This production is well-paced, well-designed and well-acted; and if that doesn't please you, well, there is always Thomas's performance and Wertenbaker's translation.

Britannicus is on until 19th November at Wilton's Music Hall