'Romans in Britain' ready to revive old hatreds

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When a cast headed by Tom Mannion takes to the stage of the Crucible theatre in Sheffield this evening, they will be embarking on the first major revival of a play that retains a notorious place in theatrical history.

It is just over a quarter of a century since Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain opened in London in what proved to be one of the most controversial productions the National Theatre has staged. For the generation - including Sheffield's new artistic director, Samuel West - too young to have caught the play which provoked the decency campaigner Mary Whitehouse to apoplexy, it will be the first opportunity since 1980 for a proper reassessment of the work.

All those involved hope that The Romans in Britain will be finally seen as what West describes as "an epic, funny and beautiful play". Back then, all attention focused on a single scene in which a Roman soldier rapes a druid, a simulation which outraged Mrs Whitehouse and her supporters, although Brenton intended it to be seen as a war crime.

Although police decided the play broke no public decency laws, she pursued its director, Michael Bogdanov, under an imaginative interpretation of the Sexual Offences Act in which it was claimed he was acting as a pimp in having procured the actors. A judge supported the interpretation, which has deterred many revivals since, even though Mrs Whitehouse herself eventually withdrew the prosecution.

Bogdanov said yesterday that the hounding was "pretty awful" at the time. But he was delighted the play was being done again. "It should have been done before," he said. "It's a terrific piece of writing and that fact got obscured by the silliness surrounding the case. It is one of the iconic pieces of modern theatre of the last 30 to 40 years."

Bogdanov feared that there would be demonstrations again "for all the wrong reasons". The furore of 1980 is being replicated today by groups such as Christian fundamentalists opposing the regional tour of Jerry Springer: The Opera and Sikhs who forced the closure of Behzti in Birmingham, he said.

The play is a critique of the Roman invasion of Britain and repression of Celtic culture with explicit parallels to modern British involvement in Northern Ireland. "It's to do with imperialism," Bogdanov said. "The play continues to be significant in the light of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Romans overran Britain, ignoring the Celtic culture. It's exactly what we do around the world and Americans do it in the name of democracy everywhere."

Angela Galvin, chief executive of Sheffield Theatres, said they had taken legal advice before deciding the risk of facing prosecution was small. The decision to present the play, she said, was made because the Crucible's stage is suited to epic drama such as The Romans in Britain.

What they thought then ...

* "This brings Soho pornography onto the National stage and its effect could be profound and very far reaching ... If this is not obscene, nothing could be."

Mary Whitehouse, morals and censorship campaigner for the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association

* "It was like being plucked up in the steel jaws of some puritanical JCB. My family and I moved to escape the abusive phone calls, illiterate, obscene, anonymous letters, threats to get me, get my family."

Michael Bogdanov, director of 'The Romans in Britain' in 1980

* "My worry was that little would be written about except the rape ... But I didn't press the point ... It was shocking; but then it was meant to be."

Sir Peter Hall, director of the National Theatre

* "I have no doubt that a prima facie case exists that a criminal offence has been committed."

John Smyth QC, whom Whitehouse asked for a legal opinion

* "A nauseating load of rubbish from beginning to end."

James Fenton, theatre critic

* "It got caught up in the classic silly season and Mary Whitehouse lost her way."

Howard Brenton, playwright, 'The Romans in Britain'

* "Cover her head!"

Sir Horace Cutler, leader of the GLC, on walking out with his wife