Spoiler warning for Romans in Britain and Edward Bond's Lear
At the after show talk, the director Sam West, the crew and the audience were quite clear that this is an anti-war play. I wonder. There are some nice comparisons with Edward Bond's Lear, performed in Sheffield the previous year. (Lear is only loosely based on Shakespeare's King Lear.) Both occur to a constant backdrop of war, both happily kill off characters as soon as you start to identify with them, both are brutal, both feature madness. Yet Lear works. It identifies the madness of the king with war in the country; it leaves the audience two steps behind in wondering which war is being fought at any time and who is on which side. It invites the audience to see if they can tell the difference between war and insanity. Romans is a light comedy by comparison.
Both end with a seemingly futile death, which is perhaps not supposed to be futile. Lear, having regained relative sanity and lost his power, attacks the Wall (Berlin wall idea) single handedly with a sledghammer and is shot. Major Chichester 'fesses up to the IRA, after seeing the ghosts of the Saxon invasions of AD525 - the events of each period happen on the same stage around the corpses of the other. Was he just mad? Was it a ham-fisted olive branch? Was it a suicide driven by racial guilt? I found the whole episode rather pointless.
The politics of this play would certainly have been shocking in 1980, with the troubles looming large. Today, a pro-war British play would be shocking, even more than an anti-war Hollywood movie. It asks us to compare the British in Ireland to the Romans in Britain, or the Saxons in Britain - but the comparison is so feeble that a transfer to Iraq wouldn't have worked. It contains powerful representations of the inevitable brutality of occupying armies; a fair share of comedy, and a fine Julius Caesar. Is this enough to make it an anti-war play? Perhaps. Yet the suggestion is that peacetime was pretty brutal too. What did the Romans ever do for us? This question was asked, Python notwithstanding.
To be an anti-war play, it is not enough to say that war is hell. All but the neo-cons know that. Not enough to portray unsympathetically the shocking ordinariness of the troops: Roman, British or IRA. You have to say that no (or not enough) good will come of it. The wars in Lear lead the country from one tyranny to another, via bloodbaths. That's how you do it.
Tags: Romans in Britain, Edward Bond, Lear