'The Romans in Britain': a controversial revival

Actor/director Samuel West has chosen 'The Romans in Britain' - one of the most controversial plays ever performed in this country - for his debut at Sheffield's Crucible. Lynne Walker hears why

Thursday 26 January 2006 01:00 GMT

His private passions are playing the piano and cello, bird-watching, gardening and needlepoint. So Samuel West's decison to direct the first professional revival of Howard Brenton's provocative The Romans in Britain casts him in a new light. After all, this is the play in which the simulated male rape of a Druid by a Roman soldier caused apoplexy in some quarters following its premiere at the National in 1980.

But in his first season as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, West seems liberated, as though bursting to prove that beneath that immediately likeable and highly cultured exterior there are hidden depths to his character, a darkly subversive side.

Representing the fourth generation of actors in his family, West seems - consciously or otherwise - to be unstitching his reputation as a thoroughly Establishment luvvie.

His honeyed tones have made him the darling of Radio 4 listeners (whom he's lulling to sleep reading EM Forster's A Passage to India as Book at Bedtime) and a favourite for TV documentary voiceovers and classic audio books. Coming over as a good egg on his recent appearance on University Challenge, he seems about as unlikely to stir up trouble as the toffish prefect he still resembles, even at 39.

"You'd be surprised at how little choice I've had in the direction of my career," he says, a touch ruefully. "I regret that I was never asked to play an East End gangster when they were all the rage in the 1990s. Now, suddenly, posh boys are the thing and I'm a bit old."

The crumpled blond hair and liquid brown eyes - not to mention his rare insights as an actor - gave him a passport to choice stage roles in plays ranging from Edward Bond's The Sea and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, both at the National, to Richard II and Hamlet at the RSC nearly a decade later. In films and on television - notably Van Helsing, Iris, Howard's End, Waking the Dead, Cambridge Spies - he's been alternately earnest, plummy, winsome, charming and caddish.

Now commuting between Sheffield and his Islington home, he's playing another role to which he seems born, filling three very different theatre spaces with an intriguing selection of work.

Sitting at the centre of his first season, The Romans in Britain fits well in a series West acknowledges is "very much about violence, victims, politics, racism.... It wasn't meant to be a themed season, though since we are a country at war perhaps it does no harm to focus on what may be on people's minds."

The wartime thriller The Long, the Short and the Tall is by a former Sheffield Theatres board member, Willis Hall, while Sondheim's dark-toned music theatre piece, Assassins, "captivates me with its brilliant drama and dialogue," he enthuses.

"I'm pleased that, by accident," he admits, "the studio space features work written entirely by women." That includes Tanika Gupta's Gladiator Games, about a racially motivated prison murder. For the European premiere of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, after Romans, he's thinking of lightening up the "black box" studio. "I prefer white boxes as they represent a perfect combination of laboratory, art gallery and madhouse," he chuckles.

West's directorial note to himself, after assembling his first season, is to include one better known work next year, perhaps a costume drama, he muses: "The Way of the World seen from the three sides of the Crucible's stage would be fun." He hopes the jigsaw of programming will become easier, and is keen to direct his parents, Timothy West and Prunella Scales.

How committed is he to keeping one foot on the stage? "Very," he replies quickly, "if people will allow me to do so. Although acting and directing require completely different mindsets. I think that actors bring something special to directing because they know how to talk to other actors." But he adds quickly, "The most important thing for an actor is to trust the director."

Given the brouhaha and lawsuit that captured the headlines during the only previous run of Romans a quarter of a century ago, is West courting controversy in choosing it as the first play he directs since taking over as from Michael Grandage?

"No, I think Romans is a very good play and I think it's part of theatre's duty to look again at unjustly neglected works. Its calibre has been eclipsed to a ludicrous extent by that scandal. It talks about issues that are very much in the air."

In Romans, Brenton seems to be exploring the parallels and contrasts between key moments of imperialism - Julius Caesar's invasion of Celtic Britain, the Saxon invasion of Romano-Celtic Britain, and Britain's part in the conflict in Northern Ireland.

"It's about the inability of the oppressed to defend themselves against invasion," argues West. "It's about people who've been ignored by history; about our relationship with our land, our soil; about how we convinced ourselves that the Roman invasion was a good thing and even acquired a talent for it ourselves.

"And it can't not be about Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Iran, and the imperial attitude that says it's OK to go into another country without being asked. I'm very concerned about things that are being done in my name and Romans, which states that invasion is wrong and that republican causes are just, raises some of those issues."

It's tough in that there is "no lead character", no "goodies", "baddies" or "moral message", as the playwright puts it, in Romans. Brenton - who's enjoyed recent success writing four series of Spooks for the BBC - remained confident that Romans "would have its day on the British stage" and that whether or not future audiences liked the piece, they would say: "What was all that fuss about, years ago?"

West refuses to be drawn on how he will stage the sodomy scene, but says, "If it were to be set behind a tree, it would become more titillating and have less impact as a crime of violence. To veil anything because of its perceived sexual context is to misunderstand the scene," he says quietly.

Casting any play where 17 people play 60 parts is hard. He was relieved when his cast arrived knowing its lines. "Anything that gets in the way is a nuisance. We worked with the boys naked from the first rehearsal. I gave them the choice and it was their decision.

"I think that I have a feeling for the register of the play and know how it lives in the mouth. It's also extremely funny and we will bring out that aspect too," West says. "Otherwise it's going to be an awfully dull evening."

What if people laugh at what others find deeply serious or even offensive? "That's fine, they can question themselves about why they are amused at a crime of violence. As Edward Bond said of the controversial third scne of Act I, 'Cut the gags and you'd have a perfectly respectable scene.' Howard doesn't give you an easy ride in Romans - it's violent, humorous, beautiful and often all three."

'The Romans in Britain', Sheffield Crucible (0114-249 6000), 8 to 25 February

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