Tristan Bernays loves Hollywood blockbusters. His new play, Boudica, is an attempt to put the blood-and-guts vibe of the action flick on the Globe’s stage. The pacy plotting works well. Boudica revolts against the Romans who have stolen her kingdom. The queen is imprisoned and flogged while her two maiden daughters are savagely violated. Vowing revenge, she allies herself with the reluctant Belgics and they attack and destroy Camulodunum (Colchester).
The first half is a rip-roaring crowd-pleaser. After the interval, an anticlimax. London is sacked but the Romans cling to power and when Boudica dies, her bickering daughters fight rather tediously over the succession. What counts here are the externals: the costumes, the accents, the fights, the stunts. The legionaries sport sturdy tin helmets crested with stiff blond bristles. The Roman leaders, all misogynistic twerps, wear fussy golden dressing-gowns and all of them prattle away in sibilant Noël Coward voices. The native Brits wear linen and fur outfits suggesting a tatty, sexy Celtic elegance. Bernays fills his dialogue with Shakespeare’s rhythms. ‘Give me briefly the cause of this your suit?’ asks an envoy. A duel on the battlefield ends with, ‘Silence wretch. And die you like a man.’ Boudica, whipped and bleeding, displays her wounds to her ravished daughters. ‘Do not these ruby mouths across my back cry likewise what I’ve suffered?’ She taunts her enemies to fight. ‘Where are you Rome, you slouching slug-a-beds?’
Pedants like me will object to Bernays’s grammar. ‘We heard with woe the death of he your king.’ Spot the problem? A pronoun takes an oblique case following a preposition, and the sentence quoted should end ‘of him your king’. That said, the deliberate creakiness of the verbal idiom suits the play’s flashy antiquarianism.
Gina McKee is near-perfect as Boudica. She has the right sort of defiant regality but her willowy figure isn’t convincing. A warrior queen leading an army of barbarians needs more muscle density, more sheer skeletal thickness than this catwalk damsel can offer. Swords and pikes seem unfamiliar in her Fairy Liquid hands. She thrusts a spear through a centurion as if performing an aerobics exercise. However, her charisma is undeniable and as soon as her character dies the play’s dramatic interest expires. The curtain should fall with the exit of her corpse. This is hardly a classic, but it succeeds on its own terms by replicating the kind of gory thriller beloved of the groundlings in Shakespeare’s day.
The Bush’s studio stage hosts a new play by comedienne Sophie Wu. The title, Ramona Tells Jim, is uninspiring but everything else works very well in this offbeat rom-com. At its heart there’s a beautifully rendered seduction scene between two nervous kids on a remote Scottish island. Strapping Jim, 17, wants to become an oceanographer. He meets 16-year-old Ramona, a swottish English schoolgirl on a geography field trip. Ramona tries to pose as a sophisticated woman of the world but her impulsive childishness keeps breaking through. ‘I’m a single Pringle ready to mingle,’ she says, indicating her availability through the medium of gangsta rap. Jim invites her to watch a meteor shower on a beach. Once there, he suggests sex. Romana admits she’s a virgin, but ‘ready to pull the plug’. Does he have protection? He produces a sheath. She’s dismayed rather than relieved or delighted. The condom, packed in advance, suggest a lack of gallantry. Never mind. She lies on the pebbles. ‘Still got my wellies on, is that a problem?’ She hitches up her skirts. ‘Is the beast robed?’ The deed itself is awkward, short-lived and pleasure-free but punctuated by supportive observations. ‘Is this fast enough?’ ‘A perfect tempo, like iambic pentameter.’ Afterwards they declare their undying love. Then they part immediately.
We move forward 15 years and Jim’s career has faltered. He’s stuck in a relationship with a gobby, grasping minx who claims to be carrying his child. The minx lives with her mother (‘absolute slut’) and her ‘pig-thick mong brother’. She secretly keeps a stolen pet rabbit, which her mother has threatened to microwave. She feeds the animal with strips of pork sausage. These small details tell us everything we need to know about this wretched girl: she’s selfish, stupid and immoral and yet full of affection that she can’t channel properly so she lavishes it on a herbivorous pet, accidently turning it into a meat-eater. It’s a brilliant portrait of disturbed, rootless adolescence.
Mel Hillyard’s production is sublimely funny but also moving and at times uncomfortable to watch. Ruby Bentall is brilliant playing the geekishly endearing Ramona. Amy Lennox, as the minx, delivers an uncompromising portrait of twisted young lust. With its small cast and simple stage effects, this show would be an ideal candidate for a tour. Even greater things must surely come from Sophie Wu. I can’t wait.