Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Boudica (Julie Godfrey) arrested by foot soldiers Dylan Marshall (Lucius) and Jack George (Cato. Pictures: Richard Smith 


The Loft, Leamington Spa


The Loft’s decision to stage Tristan Bernays’ shattering play Boudica, so soon after their contrasting venture into spoof Shakespeare with Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, well exemplifies the wide ranging explorations of this marvellous company, whose productions – and performing - often seem to come staggeringly close to the RSC, just 12 miles down the road.  

In the wake of Shakespeare’s Globe’s staging, which starred the wondrous Gina McKee (an amazingly bold piece of unexpected casting), the Loft’s Boudica revealed yet again the craftsmanship for which it deserves to be (perhaps is) famed. Richard Moore’s set – he has designed so many that heighten Loft productions - even though here in essence just an overawing hillfort gate, believably Celtic-Roman, created a forceful, dominating, almost sinister atmosphere throughout. It was simply right.  

Yet it’s worth noting that, despite its excellence at historical repertoire - Queen Caroline, Lady Bessy, Anne Boleyn, Nell Gwynn, The Theban Plays (in Robert Fagles’ acclaimed translation, soon after its staging at the RNT), that’s about the lot, unless one adds their celebrated Shakespeare: in quick succession (1998-2006) The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Macbeth (for the second time), King Lear, Hamlet. But more it might be intriguing to see added: Euripides, Aeschylus, Plautus or Terence (for a laugh), Aristophanes (even more so), Seneca (for a groan), Racine, Marlowe.  

What was also so impeccably right was the extraordinary feel of Bernays’ text. For time and again, it invoked Shakespearian iambics, which repeatedly gave the script a feeling entirely apt for a saga such as this. ‘Your father was a Titan of a man’; ‘A woman who has overstepped her bounds’; ‘’The kingdom now is Rome, and being such…’; ‘I needs must have revenge, and hence I ask…’; ‘My friends, I will tell all, but first I say…’ Or (Cunobeline): ‘When your own husband sold himself to Rome.’ And on it goes. This does not sound like Webster, Middleton or Jonson. Beautifully crafted, it sounds strikingly and uniquely like Shakespearean Tragedy. Not corny: profoundly expressive.  

From a magnificently copious wardrobe – some their own (they have a notable collection, others perhaps imported (the RSC, e.g., has an extensive supply to hire out when not needed) - we were treated by Helen Brady and Zara Mothersdale to a wealth of tribal attire. Iceni, Trinovantes and whoever else they picked up on the way (some Cassivelauni?), were hugely evocatively evoked: Mark Roberts is a gigantic performer in every Loft production I’ve seen him in, and as the initially reluctant Cunobeline (‘strong as a dog’) looked magnificent, as if he was heading off to massacre three legions in the Teutoburg Forest. Cunobelin[e] is used as a regal-sounding name, for the real Cymbeline had died some 20 years before the Boudican revolt - unless a grandson was so named.


Mark Roberts, splendid as usual as senior tribe leader Cunobeline, and on his right (in the picture), British fellow-commander Badvoc (Connor Bailey)

The whole British enterprise is of course studded with poignancy, for we, most of us, know that Boudica’s revolt will end in bloody disaster – quite likely on Watling Street near Atherstone in Warwickshire. There are alternatives – insufficient evidence for Penkridge in Staffordshire: a likely place given Romans’ road system: Suetonius was awaiting the legion from Gloucester, which never came, even via Cirencester and the Fosse Way); Northamptonshire some think a possibility (there are possible hill coverts). But I like and have explored the Warwickshire option.

Well, to Elizabeth Morris’s particularly fine production. She manoeuvred her characters (on admittedly a smallish stage here) with shrewdness and outstanding competence. You could take a meeting of the Celtic chiefs, even in a tightish huddle, quite seriously. The Romans – a pesky trio, and a somewhat spindly Suetonius Paulinus, the harassed but frighteningly efficient imperial governor (Paul Curran) – made a pleasing (deliberate) shambles. The incessant ‘fuck/fuckings’ of (I assume) Oliver Brindley, though true to text, seeming initially gratuitous (and annoying) but in fact gratingly underlined – perhaps very aptly - the slobbishness of the Romans. It’s become the only swearword in English these days (appallingly unimaginative, grotesque; think of our dozens of other, historic swearing options); but therefore here suggesting the complete lack of intelligence in the variously (from throughout the empire) amassed Roman legionaries.

It was satisfying the extent accomplished author Tristan Bernays sticks to the generally accepted version of events: Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Suetonius Tranquillus (a coincidence, but not to be confused with our scarlet-clad Field Marshal Suetonius Paulinus. It might seem either easy or problematic to spread out the deadly assaults on Colchester, London and St. Albans (the last passed over briefly here); but Morris’s spacing and pacing seemed ideal.

Indeed, Bernays handles the appalling ill-treatment of the Norfolk Iceni tribe adroitly and, to advantage, at some length. Julie Godfrey as Boudica gives a thrilling, vengeful, aggressive, performance from the very outset. There’s no doubt whose side we’re on: the figure who exemplifies Britain today in her statue on London’s Embankment (there is another in Cardiff City Hall). Besides, how can one not side with the losers? Her husband, Prasutagus, has only recently died, but his yielding to Rome (‘He let himself be taken for a fool’) has made him despised. Hence her vocal leadership is accepted by the tribe. Prosperity, she asserts, will only be achieved by those who take on Rome – ie resist the financial depredations (‘rapaciousness’ – Tacitus) of, above all, the imperial procurator Catus Decianus – was he a freedman, notorious for their self-importance? In fact, true to form, he fled. But put Godfrey onstage alone, in soliloquy, and each time she held us gripped and aghast.

Dio gives their attacking number at 130,000. Of these, Tacitus maintains a possible 80,000 tribesmen (and women?) perished at the final encounter. And despite all (‘We are outnumbered ten to one’…. ‘which of us earns the spoils of victory’) just a few hundred Romans. But he also tells us up to 100 or 120 thousand – or more - hapless victims were mercilessly wiped out in the vandalising tribes’ triple assault on Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium.  

The story goes that on receiving news of the revolt (by galloping horseman – how many days is that?) Paul Curran’s Suetonius – bravely, and at immense speed (the Romans kept horse stations all along their roads) left most of his 14th and 20th legions to advance from Anglesey and hurtled down the A5 to London, with perhaps a detachment of soldiers, not a large force; and made the atrociously difficult decision to leave both London and St. Albans to their fate. Curran seemed a bit thinly uppety for this masterly, reflective commander, but he may indeed of necessity have had a temper, and perhaps necessarily an element of, if not arrogance, aggression: so why not interpret this way?  


Roman administration - military versus civilian - Paul Curran as strategist Suetonius Paulinus and Joshua Smith as the grasping Catus Decianus

Bernays’ play opens with a strange piece of invention: a mysterious scarlet clad figure, Andraste (actually the Britons’ Celtic goddess of victory) – Joanna Stevely - who supplies an extensive, pretty atmospheric preface; but whose main task, very skilfully conceived, comes later, as she emerges, whether sinisterly or protectively, to cloak and conceal, with her blazing red (more than) cloak to gather up Celts one by one as they perish on the battlefield: souls being carried to heaven in some Druidic version, presumably.  

Actually I’d like to mention one or two performers whom I especially liked. Newcomer Joshua Smith made a highlight of Decianus – swaggering, smug, strutting, on the whole pretty ruthless. Utterly confident, he held the stage arguably most successfully of the whole cast. It was he who made the most authentic of the jumped-up invaders, although I thought Dylan Marshall as Lucius, one of the ubiquitous three Roman soldiers, made a decent job of it (with over ten increasingly important Loft credits to his name).  

Connor Bailey’s sceptical Badvoc – calling into doubt the whole exercise, but throwing his weight behind it – with his substantial forces brought strength to the already forceful British lines. Another I enjoyed, in ancillary roles on both sides, was Ernie Boxall: again a (senior) Loft newcomer, though surely a seasoned performer elsewhere. He certainly had a kind of presence, elderly, attentive, reliable. I also rated the hardworking entries of Imogen Clarke’s dedicated Messenger: a small part, but she somehow brought character to it.  

Jonathan Fletcher (cursing Roman soldier) also provided – assuming ‘twas not his namesake - the music, and this – looming, threatening, enveloping – or else energised, surely apt – was another aspect giving this production both its energy, and its overawing feel. At one point it felt like a dead ringer for Mark Rylance’s mesmerising Wolf Hall. Definitely an enhancement to the whole. The sword- and other fights (Matthew Tyler, Daisy M. Stone, who also acted amid the fray) seemed surprisingly believable. Difficult on a compacted stage, yet strikingly well managed. Robin Boyd’s Lighting generated endless variety and shifting colour, always beneficially. All of these a great bonus for Elizabeth Morris’s deft staging, using space so skilfully.  

Boudica’s and (presumably) Prasutagus’ two ravaged daughters are inevitably significant figures in this story. These were (I assume) the alternately strong-willed and hesitant Blodwynn (Rosie Pankhurst), and Alonna (Martha Allen-Smith). Both brought admirably rich individual personalities to bear.


Julie Godfrey (Boudica) and Martha Allen-Smith (her daughter Alonna)

Yet magnificently interesting was the extent to which Alonna, seemingly the younger, more assured and more persuasive, becomes the adviser of her mother (even prepared to dispute and challenge), and shows both nerve and level-headedness. A great performance (and interpretation). We don’t know what became of the courageous two daughters. Most of the names are (clever) invention, of course – yet how well these abused girls contributed to the realism of this plot.  

Did Boudica – Boadicea – take poison? Deadly nightshade (as mentioned here)? The sources seem contradictory – although if she did perish (as some say, surely unlikely) through illness, then that’s not incompatible with swallowing poison.  

What the consequence would have been had her marauding tens of thousands won the day, difficult to say. But one suggests Nero – now secure on the throne - was actively contemplating reversing his stepfather Claudius’ annexation of Britain, and pulling out altogether. But the eastern and southern provinces at least had riches and benefits to yield.

Instead a compromise was achieved. By sending out Petronius Turpilianus (midway through his consulship: surely much more usual to take up Governorships after a year or two) and replacing Joshua Smith’s dire Catus Decianus by (the short lived, but highly creative) Julius Classicianus – he was immensely successful in pacifying Britain, and his winning the confidence even of the rebellious eastern tribes was masterful. So perhaps there was a good ending, of sorts.

Roderic Dunnett


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