It’s always sad, for audience and company alike, when a show that has all the right ingredients for some reason doesn’t quite pull it off.
Boadicea, a rock opera from the same team that sold out the Cremorne Theatre in 2006 and 2009 with their rock version of Macbeth, has interesting music, a wonderful cast, one of Australia’s best directors in David Bell, a truly gripping story, and a full-bodied feminist theme. There’s the almost obligatory violence, with rape, bloody murder, war and plentiful gouts of blood, even if it lost some of its shock factor when it came out of a spray can.
The costumes, a post-modern vision of semi-historical fighting gear (Boadicea), Roman soldiers looking like welders in black leather aprons and full frontal eye masks, contemporary (the slave with a black suit with no shirt or shoes, and a studded dog collar around his throat), and God-knows-what bits of assorted white drapery from the dress-up box, made an eclectic but ultimately satisfying visual statement. The singers, led by throaty diva Alison St Ledger as Boadicea, made magnificent noises; Alison Rogers’ 50-voice ensemble Manoeuvres provided an atmospheric but non-intrusive background to the action; and all the soloists had voices at least good enough to be in a professional opera chorus.
And the story, of course, is universal in its theme of a captive nation/people fighting to retain their identity, a theme that has been repeated throughout history. The story of Boadicea is no legend – she was the warrior-queen of the Iceni, a native Celtic tribe who in the year 60CE rebelled against the overthrow of their country during the Roman invasion, and the cruel punishments meted out to all rebellious peoples by the mad evil emperor Nero. The story isn’t unique, of course, but Boadicea, or Boudicca, to give her again her native name, is no weak helpless Celtic woman. When her husband is murdered by the Romans, she takes over leadership of the tribe to retaliate, in a futile because impossible campaign to throw them out of Britain.
Boadicea is of course one of the first great feminist heroes in western literature – instead of giving up and going meekly to punishment after her daughters (only one in this production) are raped and she is publicly flogged, she raises an army to fight back. And this is no token gesture – her army, which the Roman historian Tacitus calculated to be over 100,000, burned and destroyed Londinium and modern-day St Albans), killing an estimated 70,000–80,000 Romans. You go, girl! Of course she is ultimately defeated and either kills herself to avoid being taken prisoner and humiliated by her captors, or fell ill and died – the contemporary accounts differ, but popular history prefers the Cleopatra analogy.
So why didn’t this potentially stunning production work? It’s a bit like making a cake – you’ve done it before, you know the recipe works, you have all the right ingredients, you haven’t really changed the cooking method, but when it comes out of the cake tin it hasn’t risen high enough.
I’ve been puzzling for a couple of days over why this show didn’t reach its full potential. Maybe it was the music, which was as eclectic as the costumes, but failed to satisfy, mainly because it was quite old-fashioned, with more of a ’70s feel than I anticipated. I detected the influence of Carmina Burana, Irish folk music and even Andrew Lloyd Webber, and although I’m the last to complain about the absence of heavy rock music, this was so tame that it didn’t even come close to offending my sensitive ears.
The fight scenes, too, and the massacres/battles/rapes/murders, lacked intensity of feeling, although not of movement. All in all, in spite of the noise and the physicality, it was a emotionally timid production full of sound and fury which didn’t really convince. I hope it was just first-night jitters, because as a show it has immense potential, with a solid cast, especially Alison St Ledger as Boadicea, and a first-rate director in David Bell, whose vision can here be felt if not fully realised.
This is one of those shows that just miss the mark, and it’s hard to say exactly why, although the lack of great dramatic moments in what is a great dramatic story has something to do with it. It needs more passion, more courage, more guts – although not more blood from a spray can.