I can remember, as a child, being enthralled by tales of Boudica and her daring. Here is a woman who stood up to the Romans – and very nearly defeated them – uniting tribes across Britain as she did so. For a woman – a second class citizen in the 1st century AD – to have achieved this seemed little short of miraculous.
Interestingly, Boadicea (as she was known until the late 20th century), had been all but forgotten about until the Victorians rediscovered her legacy. Since then, songs have been sung about her, books written about her and films and TV shows made about her; she has even appeared in comic books – but never, as far as I can ascertain, has she featured in a play.
I was over the moon, therefore, when I heard that one of my favourite theatres – Shakespeare’s Globe –was putting on a production of a brand new, ancient history play that tells Boudica’s story. I jumped at the chance to go along – despite some qualms about sitting outside in what is rapidly becoming a wintry September. I do NOT like the cold, as anyone who knows me will testify.
It turned out that I didn’t need to worry. It being one of the warmest September days on record, I was able to sit, heroically, in this open-air theatre, WITHOUT A COAT ON (I feel sure Boudica would have approved of my bravery). And what a treat it always is, being in Shakespeare’s Globe. Thanks to its clever design, you really do feel as though you’ve travelled back in time to the 17th century and that the great man himself could be mingling with the audience down in the Yard, anxious to see how his latest play is received.
I think he would have enjoyed ‘Boudica’. The writing is gripping, the cast sensational – and Gina McKee is perfect in the lead role. Tall and regal, she embodies all of the characteristics you would expect in a female warrior, displaying just enough vulnerability – particularly in respect of her two daughters – to make you warm to her.
The play begins with the funeral of Prasutagus, king of the Iceni tribe – and the estranged husband of Boudica. Britain itself is a divided country: under Roman rule, at least seven tribes roam the land. Their leaders have come to Prasutagus’s funeral to mourn him – but also to find out what parts of his land and wealth they can lay claim to, when the Romans divide them up. What they are not expecting is that Boudica will lay claim to them herself.
The Romans are not expecting this, either. When Boudica and her daughters approach them, seeking resolution, matters escalate very quickly; Boudica is beaten to within an inch of her life, and both her daughters raped. This is a man’s world – and they are trespassing.
Events move quickly from here. Watching Gina McKee, enraged, bloodied but unbowed, cajoling and haranguing her fellow chieftains to join her in battle against the Romans makes for spectacular viewing. “I am no churl, no scullion, no farming wench…I am a queen”, she intones – and we believe her. She is also a leader: “This kingdom’s mine…and I’ll fight any man who stands between me and this land”, she dictates, grimly – and we are left in no doubt that she means it.
The ensuing battle scenes are ferocious and take your breath away with their intensity. There may only be a dozen or so actors upon the stage, but between them they brilliantly convey the savagery of war. And, whilst sympathetic to Boudica and her compatriots, the play doesn’t shy away from the brutalities inflicted upon each other by both sides. War is grim, goes the message – and rarely does anyone emerge from it with any credit.
First Colchester, then Londinium and then St Albans fall, as Boudica’s troops sweep away everything in their path – and for a few moments, I found myself believing that the course of history was about to change. But no. Not today. The jubilation at the end of the play’s first act, brilliantly portrayed by this exuberant young cast, is soon replaced by in-fighting and squabbling, as Boudica and the various kings jostle for superiority.
Working in tandem with these events is a compelling sub-plot involving Boudica’s daughters: Alonna, played by Joan Iyiola and Blodwynn, played by Natalie Simpson. Very different in both personality and ambition, their relationship takes a dramatic turn for the worse during the latter part of the play and the bitter regret and pain that they share over their broken bond is beautifully portrayed by the two actresses.
One final comment: how fantastic to watch a play about a woman, that is directed by a woman (Eleanor Rhode) and which features women in the three – memorable – lead roles. Long may this turn of events continue.