Coming face to face with Racine four decades after writing essays about his plays is like bumping into a difficult old acquaintance from university and being pleasantly surprised. The man turns out to be a lot more fun than I ever imagined he was back in the late 1960s. Actually, I always found Racine interesting, but it's hard to appreciate what a gifted dramatist he is without seeing his works on stage.
This production in the atmospheric surroundings of Wilton's Music Hall is the work of director Irina Brown and playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, who have between them created one of those high-value, low-budget shows that exemplify everything that is best in London's off-West End theatre. Seating the audience on what is normally the stage of this decaying East End music hall allows the audience to look down from the raked seating on to the actors. Wertenbaker has shunned the fashion for updated 'versions' of foreign language plays, sticking very closely to the text. There's a slight awkwardness in some of the phrasing, but the formality of Racine's language comes across well. The modern setting and costumes fit well in a design which sticks to the French classical tradition. In other words, it's fairly minimalist. Sian Thomas is terrific as the Roman matriarch Agrippina, desperate to prevent her offspring Nero from casting her off. Nero (Matthew Needham) is a young man with pyschopathic tendencies who turns out to be more ruthless than his seductive mother. Britannicus is his victim, but also Agrippina's. It's a brutal story of lust and power, put together with wonderful dramatic skill. Racine's ability to structure a plot is second to none, and Thomas seizes the opportunity to remind us that he writes really juicy parts for women. This production, for my money, is just as good as the memorable Phedre which starred Helen Mirren at the National a year or two back. It's well cast and well acted, and lasts just 100 minutes with no interval.