Chad Ellis, Derek Neumeier and Ashley O'Connell in Romans in Britian. Photo by Adam Beauchesne.
Chad Ellis, Derek Neumeier and Ashley O'Connell in Romans in Britian. Photo by Adam Beauchesne.

There is some powerful imagery in Ensemble Theatre Company production of The Romans in Britain.

Rape, patricide, and a stage strewn with bodies, The Romans in Britain chronicles the horrors of imperialism from the Roman invasion of Britain to the Northern Ireland conflict. That imagery is undermined though as playwright Howard Brenton adds little to the conversation. Instead, it simply becomes another, although brutally graphic, reminder that history has a nasty way of repeating itself.

What does speak volumes though, and one can’t help but think of as an unintended outcome, is the lack of emotional investment from watching nearly two and a half hours of violence.  Are we so accustomed to the relentless images of unspeakable tragedies around the world that we become so desensitized? That may be partly true, but one only has to look to the playwright himself for a possible explanation as to the emotional disconnect.

Writing in The Guardian of his play’s revival in 2006, Brenton called the original 1980 production of The Romans in Britain an experiment of its time, albeit one that courted controversy and legal action as a result of its rape scene. Twenty-five years later, Brenton writes that The Romans in Britain was “not an experiment any more – it’s just a play”. To be fair, while hoping audiences have “a good night out”, Brenton does draw new parallels to American imperialism, and his country’s complicity in more contemporary military conflicts. But again, while exposing those new parallels may put The Romans in Britain in a contemporary context, it is nothing new.

The playwright’s own assertion that The Romans in Britain is “just a play” then begs the question: is it a worthwhile artistic endeavour? Under the direction of Richard Wolfe, there is much to like about the production. Helping immensely are some fine performances from the ensemble, including the trio of druid siblings portrayed by Chad Ellis, Derick Neumier and Francis Winter. Greg Radzimowski makes himself memorable, but that may be more about his role as Roman rapist.

Adding to the play’s powerful images are Heipo Leung’s set, combined with Scott Zechner’s wonderfully atmospheric lighting. Costume designer Julie White succeeds in the various time periods (although the Joe Boxers visible beneath druid clothing on one actor was distracting).

I must admit that reading Brenton’s article in The Guardian is an eye-opener in more ways than one. In it, the playwright also mentions Sarah Kane’s Blasted as another example of “busting theatrical norms”. Is it a mere coincidence that director Wolfe directed Kane’s play for Pi Theatre last year? Perhaps. In the end though, both are very much cut from the same cloth, with powerful images but little emotional resonance.

The Romans in Britain by Howard Brenton. Directed by Richard Wolfe. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. Playing in repertory with Betrayal and The Country Wife at the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) until August 20. Visit http://ensembletheatrecompany.ca for tickets and information.