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Boudica review at Shakespeare’s Globe, London – ‘ambitious but flawed’

Gina McKee in Boudica. Photo: Tristram Kenton Gina McKee in Boudica. Photo: Tristram Kenton

She’s gone by many names – Boudica, Boadicea, Bonduca – the warrior queen of the Iceni. A malleable and slippery symbol, posed in her chariot, with her daughters before her, she’s been made to serve many people’s purposes.

In his new play, Tristan Bernays makes an attempt to humanise the mythic figure. After her later husband’s land is seized by the Romans, Gina McKee’s Boudica tries to reclaim that which belongs to her. When she’s whipped for her temerity and sent into exile, she decides to unite this island’s various tribes against the Roman occupiers.

McKee gives a controlled and dignified performance in the title role; her temples delicately daubed with woad, she convinces both as a diplomat and a leader of men. There’s fire inside her; she speaks and people listen.

Bernays has form when it comes to meshing the mythic and the modern. His debut solo show The Bread and the Beer was a vivid verse play in which a reawakened John Barleycorn was let loose in contemporary London.

Boudica – which sits in Shakespeare’s Globe’s tricky autumnal new play slot – is a work of admirable ambition. It contains a number of potent dramatic moments, but some of the dialogue feels slightly stiff and sits awkwardly in the actors’ mouths. The play is at its most engaging when it lets its hair down. There are a number of nicely pitched comic scenes, mostly involving gobby Roman soldiers.

There’s something amusingly circular about the fact that George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, inspired as they are by English myth and history, are becoming the dramatic blueprint for plays of this sort. For better or worse there are traces of Game of Thrones evident in the narrative beats and the emphasis on power playing. This feels particularly true of the complicated, oppositional relationship between Natalie Simpson and Joan Iyiola as Boudica’s daughters, Blodwynn and Alonna.

Alongside McKee’s powerful central performance, there’s strong support from Clifford Samuel as a pragmatic, calculating Roman and Abraham Popoola as a charismatic and imposing tribal leader, but the play ultimately struggles in its central goal of making Boudica whole and human.

Director Eleanor Rhode’s occasional use of song – including a fist-pumping rendition of the Clash’s London Calling that opens the second half – creates an energy that feels unearned.

While her production is often a lot of fun – full of zip lines and battle scenes, the thump of drums and the percussive clang of sword on shield – there’s a nagging lack here too. It’s commendable that women’s stories are being celebrated on stages of this size, but Boudica herself remains frustratingly out of reach.

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Gina McKee stars in an ambitious if not wholly successful play about the quasi-mythic warrior queen