Content warning: rape, sexual violence, and descriptions of blood/gore
There’s a certain stigma that goes with historical plays. When you go to a theatre to see a play that is named after a historical figure, you tend to expect Shakespearean monologuing, old-fashioned values, and a snoozefest of political intrigue. This is because most historical plays were written at a time when the bar for entertainment was pretty low: it was either going to see King John at the Globe or watching a public hanging. But as Student Theatre at Glasgow (STAG) and playwright Tristan Bernays have proven in the company’s production of Boudica, a historical play can be much more than that, featuring intense, tight dialogue, cutting social commentary, and realistic, heart-breaking conflicts between characters. Oh, and a lot of fake blood – the front row of the audience is the designated “splash zone”.
The play centers around the historical figure of Boudica (played by Jenny Barron), a British queen who in the first century led a revolution against Roman occupation and took over some of the island’s largest cities before her ultimate defeat by the Roman general Suetonius. Barron portrays Boudica as a powerful figure, but one torn between war and peace, between her values and diplomacy, and between her two daughters, the warlike Blodwyn (Seraina Schottland) and the kindly Alonna (Aimée Buchanan). After a Roman procurator steals her ancestral lands and has his soldiers rape her daughters and beat her nearly to death, Boudica seeks out her old friend Cunobeline (Jamie Young) to gather together the scattered tribes of Britain and beat back the Romans from their land. They successfully drive out the Romans from the major cities, but as the tide of blood rises, tensions arise that threaten to split the British army into pieces.
A central theme to the play is that of rape and sexual violence. After their violation at the hands of the Romans, Boudica and her daughters are motivated by vengeance to begin their crusade against Roman rule. However, in order to build a strong enough army to fight the Romans, Boudica is forced to ally with the terrifying chief Badvoc (Luke O’Hara, in a terrifying performance), whose soldiers are known for their brutality in war. After the conquest of Camulodunum (the site of modern-day Colchester), however, Alonna comes upon two of Badvoc’s men about to rape a captured Roman woman. Enraged, Alonna attacks them, leading to a conflict that splits the tribe apart and sets her and her sister Blodwyn on opposite sides, with Boudica in the middle. Although the play initially sets up the conflict as between Romans and Britons, this scene makes us wonder: are there any good guys here, guys being the operative word? Even Boudica’s trusted friend Cunobeline takes the side of Badvoc, a move that brings to mind hypocritical ‘male feminists’ who choose to support abusers rather than believe women.
Through Boudica and her daughters, Bernays shows the vast range of responses that people have to trauma. While Boudica seems to stonewall what has happened to her, Blodwyn internalizes it and uses it to fuel her hatred for Rome. Alonna, meanwhile, becomes sick of violence and bloodshed and tries to reason with her mother and sister before it is too late. Schottland and Buchanan play out this conflict in intense, larger-than-life realism, showing how a gulf can quickly form between people as part of their conflicting coping mechanisms. The play ends on an ambiguous note in which the two sisters reconcile, but ultimately decide to go their separate ways in the wake of all that has happened.
STAG’s performance is staged in a very Brechtian fashion. The costuming is minimalist, with characters wearing white tee-shirts and black pants, with capes to identify which side they are on and face makeup that is worn as war paint. The play makes liberal use of fake blood, but rather than going for a realistic approach, director Chris Duffy has chosen to employ the technique first seen in Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro in which the blood spurts out a second after the injury – in this case, when a character is killed, their killer explodes a squib of fake blood in their hand, spraying it on the corpse (and in some cases, dramatically dropping it onto them with a pithy sneer). The amount of violence in this show is unbelievable, including a scene where a messenger’s tongue is cut out and the words “Death To Rome” are carved into his back (props to makeup designer Shannon Twiddy, by the way).
The set itself is a large, elevated stage with a thrust platform around which the audience sits. Most of the action in the play takes place on this platform, giving a strong sense of immediacy. The play also toys with the notions of its genre. In addition to giving the female historical perspective a voice, the play takes the traditional flowery language of its predecessors a step further: depending on their station and whom they’re addressing, characters speech goes from high Shakespearean monologue to obscenity-ridden pub banter. Many of the Romans also have strong accents from various parts of England – an interesting choice for the first ever performance of Boudica staged in Scotland. Furthermore, there are multiple times in the play where characters directly address the audience–in many cases, in ways that make us suddenly feel like awkward bystanders in the horrors that have unfolded before us.
Overall, Boudica is a powerful and emotional piece that, while a historical drama, is laced with cuttingly relevant connections to current issues. The actors do a phenomenal job offleshing out their characters, and the dialogue flows with an intensity and rawness that makes it difficult to look away. STAG’s production of Boudica is a shining example of how to do classical (well, neoclassical) theatre in a modern way. For those who can stomach it, Boudica is an experience that you will likely not forget for a long time.