The Romans in Britain, Crucible, Sheffield

Killing for a living is the real scandal
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The Independent Culture

Still, Mrs W got herself into the annals of theatre history, and Romans in Britain has never enjoyed (if that's the right word) a major revival. Not until now.

Why is this? It's not really that the legal case made the piece too hot to handle for quarter of a century. In fact, I saw a memorably in-your-face production in a pub theatre several years ago which drew no high-profile protests. Also, in terms of escalating atrocities, Brenton has been surpassed by the ferociously visceral plays of Sarah Kane. The hitch has surely been, in part, that Romans in Britain is a financially challenging piece of epic theatre. Samuel West's bold staging - his directorial debut here as the Crucible's artistic director - boasts 21 actors, all playing multiple roles as the narrative cuts between Julius Caesar's squads marching through South-east England circa 54BC, Ireland AD1980 where the British army are trying to root out the IRA, and Essex around AD515 as more marauding troops loom on the horizon - this time the Saxons.

West's production is played out on a beautiful green circle of moss, suggesting a giant map, over which looms a fallen tree trunk like a vast sun-bleached bone (designed by veteran Ralph Koltai). Yet this drama can still make grim, alarming viewing. No matter how many stage-nasties you've watched, it's hard not to flinch as guys go for one another's jugulars with daggers and not a second thought, or raise a boulder to smash down on a skull. Brenton's core message is that appalling stuff happens, brutality goes on - and on down the centuries - meted out not just by so-called barbarians but the armed forces of supposedly civilised states to boot. The costumes don't add any blatantly 21st-century references, essentially not going much beyond accurate Eighties military gear and some hints at punk in the clans' spiky hair and ragged tartans. But you don't need visual updates to see this play is timely all over again, with reverberations ranging from today's callous "happy slapping" to the latest covert videos of army initiation rites and Abu Ghraib. There's an apocalyptic feel that also taps into current fears as the desecrated druid preaches vengeance and predicts "cataracts of terror".

Though Brenton fell out of fashion for years, he is enjoying a comeback and what West brings out strongly is this writer's sense of black humour and his punchy yet poetic powers of description, conjuring up vivid glimpses of landscapes in the mind's eye. The downside is that other passages sound portentously overblown or puerile when they aim to be shockingly coarse. The only outstanding performance is Tom Mannion as a businesslike, darkly spin-doctoring Julius Caesar. ("Even a little massacre must look like policy.") Raad Rawi is thoroughly kitsch as Cai, ye olde shaggy pagan. Also no one is going to accuse West of presenting dangerously convincing violence when the boulders bounce like tennis balls. Flawed but still interesting.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

To 25 February, 0114 249 6060

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