The plays of Howard Brenton are performed far less regularly in North America than those of British New Left contemporaries like David Hare and Caryl Churchill. That's a shame, because Brenton's work is every bit as formally inventive, historically capacious, and politically hard-hitting--and on the latter front often more so. So it comes as welcome news that Ensemble Theatre Company is presenting Brenton's 1980 play The Romans in Britain as part of its fourth summer season in residence at the Jericho Arts Centre; the play runs in repertory with Ensemble's productions of Harold Pinter's Betrayal and William Wycherly The Country Wife through August 20th.
The conceit of Brenton's play is to juxtapose and invite historical comparison between the Roman invasion of Britain in 54 BCE and England's military occupation of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 70s; he also throws in some scenes depicting the Saxon invasion and war with the Romano-Celts in the 4th century AD, though wisely decides to forgo a staging of the Norman conquest in 1066. The play opens with two petty criminals (Yurij Kis and Matthew Bissett) on the run. Having killed a man and stolen his iron and wine, they are hoping to make it to the Irish Sea ahead of the advancing Romans, terrifying stories of which are already sweeping the land--including the fact that the Romans are said to have eagle heads, an allusion to their iconic centurion helmets (duly reproduced by expert costume designer Julie White). Publicly, however, one Celtic family, led by a formidable matriarch played with assured command by Rebecca Walters, is having none of the rumours, arguing that the Romans are just a ruse to get them to abandon their land. The folly of such thinking is brought to stark and brutal light in the next scene, when the sons of said family, having just enjoyed a pleasant afternoon swim, find themselves staring down the swords of three Roman centurions. What follows earned the play lasting notoriety when it premiered at London's National Theatre, the graphic depiction of an attempted rape of one of the sons--also a Druid priest, and here played by Ensemble company member Ennis Hannah with a palpable mix of defiance and vulnerability--having provoked a legal charge of "gross indecency" by one offended and over-zealous patron, Mary Whitehouse. While director Richard Wolfe does not shy away from foregrounding the physical violence in this scene, what shocks the most is Brenton's language, liberally salted with obscenities that transcend historical time periods and reflecting the casual brutality of the soldiers' actions: indeed, the Roman rapist is most upset that his victim's soiling of himself has caused him to lose his hard-on. (Brenton is quite fond of the scatological, and there is a running joke about the building of latrines that spans the play's different temporalities.)
At the end of the first act, one lowly female slave, having just avenged herself by killing her own rapist (one of the criminals from the first scene), raises a rock against the anonymous hordes who will surely continue to come. And, indeed, this is the cue for a coup de théâtre that will also serve as Brenton's transition to his depiction of more contemporary "troubles" on the British Isles: for the slave woman's rock-wielding arm is immediately answered by the arrival of half a dozen fatigues-clad and machine gun-toting British paramilitary. Plus ça change. What makes the second half of Brenton's play continue to resonate, even after the Easter Accords and almost 20 years of tenuous peace in Ireland, is that he doesn't force the historical parallels; he merely lays bare the evidence by counterpointing scenes. Thus, in the 1970s we are presented with Tom Chichester, an English intelligence officer attempting to infiltrate the IRA by posing as a sympathizer and runner of illegal Communist weapons having uneasy dreams in a wheat field of past atrocities, including the death of a Saxon soldier, an act of patricide by two Celtic sisters, and the murder of a Romano-Celt lady by her servant-turned-lover. (At last night's performance the role of Tom, as well as that of Julius Caesar in Act 1, was taken on with last-minute aplomb by the on-book Ensemble AD, Tariq Leslie, who was subbing for an absent cast mate.) Tom's own eventual murder by the IRA members who expose him underscores the brutal logic of endless wars begat by self-perpetuating imperial powers, a lesson as applicable to Iraq and Syria and the DRC and the Ukraine and the war against ISIS today as it was to Northern Ireland or Vietnam or any number of African states in the 1960s and 70s: as one of the IRA cell members puts it, in war the rules are simple, whereas in peace they are much less clearly defined.
Nevertheless, Brenton ends his play with an epilogue that takes us back to the 4th century, where the two sisters form an alliance with two runaway cooks, formerly part of the retinue of the murdered lady. The male cook starts to tell a story of a legendary king in whose name a long peace is established in the land; when the sisters ask the name of this king, the male cook turns to his female companion, who says: "Arthur? I don't know, Arthur?" That Brenton has to turn to myth to construct a plausibly perfectible narrative of national solidarity for Britain--just as successive generations from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era would likewise recycle Arthurian legend to shore up their sense of identity--is telling. Indeed, this scene and the play as a whole had special resonance for me post-Brexit, when the political chimera of a united (and ethnically pure) Albion is also being returned to as justification for anti-immigrant sentiment and ugly acts of racism. As interesting to me is that Brenton begins and ends his play with scenes depicting members of the lumpenproletariat (criminals, slaves, refugees and other members of the lower orders whom Marx theorized could not be trusted to achieve class consciousness and join the workers' struggle), suggesting perhaps that if the revolution continues to perpetuate the crimes of the imperial state, then perhaps it's best to eschew organized system of power altogether. In our present post-Occupy and hacktivist era, with multiple forms of precarity (economic and otherwise) extending through various strata of society, it's a bracing sentiment that likewise continues to resonate. And it offers lessons to those guilelessly angry followers of Donald Trump who continue to think he has even the remotest clue (let alone a genuine desire) about how to make America great again. Faded empires do not return to past glory; they simply sputter on, mired in the detritus that is their legacy.
All of which is to say that this production deserves to be seen. Mounted in the round, and with Ensemble's incredibly hard-working cast of 16 taking on a remarkable 45 different parts, the staging is as sensorially affecting (dirt and stones litter the floor, we hear the howling of dogs and the cawing of birds, and live drums beat throughout) as it is intellectually invigorating. Sitting in the front row, I was able to feel the pulsating physicality underscoring so many of the performances--even when characters are cowering behind rocks or bushels of wheat, hoping to remain unseen. The simple yet highly effective choral movement that Ziyian Kwan has choreographed for the opening of each act helps to telegraph this reciprocal kinaesthetic bond between the performers and spectators, something amplified by Wolfe's decision to have most of the ensemble, when not onstage, remain visible and seated alongside the audience on opposite risers--as if they, too, are powerless to stop the terrible onslaught of history.
From 1978-1980, Hare, Churchill and Brenton scored a theatrical trifecta with plays that deconstructed, in both form and content, the legacy of British imperialism. And yet while Hare's Plenty and Churchill's Cloud Nine have definitively entered the Western dramatic canon and are often remounted (with a revival of Plenty starring Rachel Weisz scheduled for New York's Public Theatre this fall), Brenton's Romans in Britain remains more on the fringe. Kudos to Ensemble and director Richard Wolfe for giving Vancouver audiences a rare opportunity to see this important and still powerful work.