STaG’s most recent mainstage, Boudica by Tristan Bernays, has just come to a close and as with every other mainstage over the last 3 and a half years, I was there, watching intently. And what I saw left me very conflicted. STaG’s mainstages over the last few years have been a slow decline in quality and I feel Boudica breaks that mould, being definitely one of the strongest mainstages I have seen in my time here. But it suffers from a very different problem, one that only really reveals itself under these circumstances, when the play, acting and direction are of a certain calibre. But more on that later.
Firstly, it must be said that the acting was of a very solid standard and a high quality. The story follows Queen Boudica, her daughters Alonna and Blodwyn, alongside their allies Cunobuline and Badvoc in their war against the Romans, led by Procurator Catus and Prefect Seutonius. The quality of acting all around was superb, with particular praise going to Jenny Barron, in the lead role of Boudica and Luke O’Hara in the role of Badvoc (a friend commented that the role had been played in the original production by a hulking behemoth of a man but was somehow scarier being played by someone who you’re not usually intimidated by). Another praiseworthy element is the directing which, if I’m brutally honest, has been lacking in previous mainstages, but was present here in a very powerful manner. The story is a very dark and gritty take on history (not that history isn’t dark and gritty in its own right) reminding us that Boudica was beaten and her daughters raped by the Romans, which spurned her to battle. Director Chris Duffy steered into that, creating a dark atmosphere that mirrored well what we saw onstage.
However, no show is without its faults and this is no exception. Music featured highly in the show, with it often being played between scenes or during speeches. Whilst this is not a bad thing, I often found the music a little jarring and crescendos meant to underline the end of a speech, once or twice drowned them out instead. I felt that, for something featuring so often in the show, more could have been done. I feel that the same could be said of the overall look of the show. Set in 61 AD, the characters are all in white t-shirts and trainers, with red and blue cloaks distinguishing Roman from Celt. This, combined with the use of wooden swords (and Boudica’s strangely small spear, seriously it was about a metre long), gave it the feel of a cheaply done school play, which I felt didn’t quite gel with the acting or the text. There was a similar issue with the use of blood capsules. I have worked extensively with stage blood, from taping it to you to sewing special pockets for it to go in. So, to see someone kill someone with a wooden sword then, when they lay dead, spend slightly too long fiddling with a blood capsule to spray on them (or in one case, a foot to their left) felt rather cringey at times.
This gives way to a bigger problem, one I feel STaG is continually suffering from. In the words of Jeff Goldblum, they “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”. STaG will say they couldn’t have done this play well if they had tried to do it in the period setting. But I fear that, by putting a Roman who references himself as wearing a tunic in jeans and a t-shirt, you take away from the artistic merit of a piece. Some will say it is meant as an allegory and I will agree, but it is an allegory expressly set in ancient Britain. The actors, writing and direction are superb, but the production itself lets them down. STaG looked at a play and thought “we can do it, if we do it this way”. But just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should. Even with all the problems their last two productions faced, STaG is falling into the same traps. Saying that you can’t accommodate this aspect of a play should not mean immediately changing it, it should mean reconsidering the play. This is not the fault of the actors, writers nor even the Director, merely a society that keeps displaying increasingly poor judgement.