Naked Romans lead unholy trinity into battle

The male rape scene in The Romans in Britain prompted standards campaigner Mary Whitehouse to bring an infamous but ultimately doomed private prosecution against its director. Next month, Howard Brenton's play is to be revived in the first major production since its National Theatre premiere in 1980,directed by the respected stage and film actor Sam West.

The actors' union Equity is considering staging its own counter-action if protesters picket the theatre. The author has said he would prefer the protests to go unchallenged. In addition, right-wing religious groups, including Christian Voice, will go into overdrive next week when the postponed UK tour of Jerry Springer: The Opera begins.

There is also disquiet about a new show by the artists Gilbert and George, to be unveiled this week, which features depictions of Christ on the cross. The show at the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton, east London, which carries the provocative title Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?, has already been slammed as "blasphemous" by the MP Ann Widdecombe.

The Romans in Britain opens on 2 February at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, where West is artistic director. It is an "epic, funny and beautiful play which was sadly eclipsed by controversy when it was first staged 25 years ago," he said.

Mrs Whitehouse argued that the scene in which a young Druid was brutally attacked by a Roman soldier, simulating an erection with his thumb, might"deprave or corrupt" the audience. The then Attorney General directed there was no case to answer. Undeterred, Mrs Whitehouse brought a private prosecution against the play's director, Michael Bogdanov, for having "procured" an act of gross indecency. Although discontinued by her own barrister, it did establish that an offence under the Sexual Offences Act could be committed in the theatre.

Mediawatch-UK, the organisation that Whitehouse founded, believes the new production is merely a marketing ruse. "It is a pity that [Mr West] is simply exploiting the controversy," said John Beyer. Mr West said: "The Romans in Britain shows us the British people both as invaders and invaded, depicting the sometimes brutal consequences of these dual roles with rare humanity, wit and sensitivity."

Mr Brenton said his themes still "resonate", with parallels to be drawn between America and Rome: "In our country, so sickeningly supine to American influence, an imperial superpower barging round the world is as dangerous and as deadly as Caesar's legions," he said.

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