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Review: The Romans in Britain

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Ensemble Theatre Company debuted their 4th annual summer repertory festival last Thursday, July 14th, at the Jericho Arts Centre. With three intense dramatic works to showcase, I chose Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain to review.

What intrigued me about this production over the other two was the historical subject matter of the play. As read straight from the playbill, The Romans in Britain “juxtaposes the Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BCE, with the British occupation of Ireland, casting a striking parallel to much of the global conflict we’ve seen in the last decade,”

The start of the production began with a chorus of ominous chanting from cast members as they walked around a circular stage to the rhythmic beat of a drum. Three individuals shook dark sand from small satchels to outline the outermost ring of the stage and in this manner, the stage was set. The play was about to begin.

Two Irishmen, running from the law, stumbles into the territory of a powerful Celtic tribe. Three brothers from the tribe find the fugitives and attempt to kill them. While one of the Irishmen escapes, the other is murdered; or rather, the other is sacrificed as one of the brothers is training to be a druid priest.

Word of this debacle reaches the ears of the head tribe members who are meeting with two messengers from a neighbouring tribe. Immediately, there is suspicion over whether or not the trespassers are connected in some manner with the messengers. The two messengers insist they knew nothing about the Irishmen and focus on re-emphasizing their original message.

The Romans are coming to Britain. They are coming to invade and precautions must be taken now.

Unfortunately, the pleading of the messengers is scoffed at by head tribe members who hold grudges against the neighbouring tribe for past grievances. As the exasperated messengers leave in frustration at their message having been rejected, the “mother” of the tribe quietly asks her husband to begin preparations for an invasion. While she did not disclose her knowledge in front of the messengers, she too knows of the coming doom.

Back with the three brothers, they are gallivanting in the fields when they come across three Roman soldiers. These three Romans quickly draw their swords and easily overcome the unarmed Celtics. All but the druid priest lies dead. Wounded, the priest struggles to move and is pinned down by one of the soldiers who proceeds to brutally rape the Celtic.

This scene of rape was disturbing and graphic. I could immediately see why this play caused controversy during its first run back in 1980 at the National’s Oliver Theatre. Before this play, I had never seen such an unadulterated scene of sexual violence live on stage and was surprised at the rawness of the moment.

After this scene, the Roman invasion continues. The Celtic tribe of the brothers is decimated and in the process, more characters murdered. Each scene, rather than propel a cohesive plot, mainly re-emphasizes the brutality of war from differing perspectives.

While the quality of acting and stage direction is not something I will comment on for this review, I will mention that on July 26th, this production will host a unique post show talkback. If you are interested in watching this production, I highly recommend that you try your best to make it for that particular night as an insider look into the making of this production will be particularly interesting. Given the deconstructed plot structure and violent nature of near-all of the scenes, how crew members made sense of the play to create The Romans in Britain will be a tale to tell.

For more information on Ensemble Theatre and the rest of their productions, click here. Tickets for shows are available straight till August 20!