First Night: The Romans in Britain, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

An intriguing idea, but 80s revival fails to fit the bill
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The Independent Culture

Mary Whitehouse may have assured Howard Brenton's 1980 play a permanent niche in legal and theatrical history when she launched a private prosecution against its director for "procuring an act of gross indecency" in the scene where a Roman soldier attempts to sodomise a naked Druid.

But by relegating it to the status of yesterday's cobwebbed cause célèbre, she effectively robbed the piece of its right to be judged as political drama.

So we should be grateful to Sam West, artistic director of Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, for giving us the opportunity to reassess the work on the appropriate terms with this first full- scale revival.

To vex Mrs Whitehouse's ghost, I would love to be able to declare that West's committed, well-judged production reveals that the play - in which the Roman invasion of Britain in 54BC, the British presence in Ireland in 1980, and the Saxon raids of 515AD are interwoven - is a neglected masterpiece of political theatre.

The revival certainly makes the most of the vigorous, cartoonish riffs, which now feel like a collaboration betweenMonty Python and Michael Moore. And it establishes that the infamous anal rape scene is, in fact, one of the most powerful and pointed episodes in the drama.

West stages it very shrewdly. There are still lots of privates on parade, so to speak, but the fact that the frustrated buggery now takes place half-underwater in the deep pool on Ralph Koltai's elemental set allows the actors to make it look much more realistic.

The horror of the scene is heightened by the callous flippancy of the Roman squaddies, who call the natives "wogs" and treat them as playthings.

The assault was drubbed in 1980 as too crude a symbol of imperial conquest; now you can't help but recall those disgusting photographs from Abu Ghraib of the sexual humiliation of detainees by jeeringly contemptuous soldiers.

Given our involvement with the US in the botched occupation of Iraq, we need a play that subjects the imperialistic impulse to intelligent analysis. But The Romans in Britain does not fit the bill.

The intriguing idea that the Roman invasion created in our Celtic forebears an emulous imperialist mentality exhibited in Northern Ireland is asserted by the structure and by the coup de théâtre of having Caesar's troops reappear, within minutes, as modern British soldiers. But it is never properly substantiated.

The linking figure - an undercover English Army officer who performs a kind of suicidal act of contrition to expiate the imperialistic past - comes across as a cipher, a hollow device to suit the play's design. And there are double standards operating.

Where ancient Celtic society is valuably depicted as itself brutal and xenophobic, the division becomes a clear-cut one between evil oppressor and blameless victim in the scenes set in 20th century Ireland.

Like the various characters who get brained by rocks, you end up feeling bludgeoned, rather than reasoned with.