Who were your childhood heroines? When I was in primary school I became pretty taken with the idea of Boudica. It was woad I particularly liked the sound of, but short of any actual Isatis tinctoria (and warned that in ancient times it was mixed with urine) I had to rely on painting my own face using blue poster paint. Other anti-Roman activities I engaged in included making a life-size shield from cardboard and painting it a lurid shade of green with pictures of adders on it (Celtic Britain by way of The Animals of Farthing Wood was my speciality). It was this former adoration that partly led me to Shakespeare’s Globe on Wednesday night. Would Tristan Bernays’ new play about the mythologised warrior queen, I wondered, be a fitting tribute and, more importantly, what would the former paint-covered me have made of it?
Well, there are certain things in Eleanor Rhode’s production that little Rosie would have enjoyed blinking out at from under her Shetland pony fringe. Unfortunately, given the amount of swearing and violence in Bernays’ script, the Globe advertises it as suitable for audience members of age 14 and above, therefore missing my geekdom by some distance. Had she been allowed in, however, she would have liked the costumes supervised by Lucy Martin, particularly those worn by Boudica (Gina McKee) and her two daughters Blodwynn (Natalie Simpson) and Alonna (Joan Iyiola). If there’s a fairly understated splattering of woad on the Celts’ skin, then there’s a reinforcement of the importance of indigo and natural dyes in the dirty blue dresses sported by the women. Abraham Popoola as Badvoc and Forbes Masson as Cunobeline, meanwhile, display their warrior status with a penchant for various dead things turned into fashion statements. It’s all the stuff we not so secretly covet: leather belts for holding swords, Galadriel tiaras, and an ability to ride horses and slaughter Romans without getting bad hair at the same time.
It’s the killing and the scrapping that probably would have impressed her most (no, not a soft-hearted child), making Simpson’s uncompromising, raging Blodwynn her favourite character onstage. Bernays claims to have written the play aiming for a ‘summer blockbuster’ of blood-splattered action. The parts that most embrace this aspiration are by far the most fun – in fact, it could do with ramping up the ante in the battle scenes and adding more – whereas the attempts at reflection and philosophising fall flatter. Iyola’s Alonna is unquestionably touching on the truth when she suggests a cycle of killing-revenge-killing is a little bit limiting (truthfully, I would have thought her a goodie-two-shoes and a disappointing future queen). But in the context of a play or film sometimes it’s great to see a few throats getting slit, a selection of torsos disembowelled and at least one or two beheadings (one tongue, courtesy of Boudica’s knife, is cut out) – especially when done in the name of rebellion against the arrogant, colonialist invaders.
Unsophisticated as that might be – hey, I was there for the war paint and weaponry – I think my inner mini Celt would have been less impressed with the quieter moments and, at points, underwhelmed by the loud ones being not-quite loud enough. The problem, if you set yourself deliberately against a genre of film and television that can actually show battles on an epic scale thanks to CGI and the rugged New Zealand landscape, then six Romans in formation is a bit of a let down. Equally, whilst Gina McKee is suitably regal in posture and self-expression, a stronger battle cry is required to really spur the punters in the wooden ‘O’ to action.
Woad now swapped for lipstick and shield probably recycled, the adult Rosemary enjoyed the moments where watching a kickass queen onstage felt like it could be done without having to be justified as part of a wider discussion – especially when the exact nature of that wider discussion is murky. At some point in the education system you switch from making mosaics in craft classes as part of ‘learning history’ and move to cold, hard critical thinking. It’s this that makes thoughts like ‘there’s an odd, under-developed combination of anti-colonialist and Brexit themes going on here’ float into your consciousness, interrupting the enjoyment of witnessing what Bernays’ really believes about the historical character of Boudica. As an addition to the array of interpretations available, Bernays’ play isn’t the most insurrectionary resurrection of Boudica. But give it awhile and you never know what’s waiting in store from the next generation of blue-painted children.
Boudica is on until 1 October 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe. Click here for more details.