In Bed With Messalina

Benjamin Askew

Eyestrings Theatre Company

Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton

(2009)

Review by Lennie Varvarides

In Bed With Messalina is inspired by the colourful history of the Roman Empress, Valeria Messalina, (c. 17/20 - 48) who became Emperor Claudius's third wife; an adolescent bride who could not be satisfied by her cuckold husband. Messalina's demise would eventually arrive when she attempts to marry another man behind her husband's back. When her plot was discovered, this betrayal led to such rage that her husband would order her public execution.

There were appropriate similarities between the ancient desire for public adoration and the modern day obsession with celebrity that the audience can identify with. This is woven into both the text and the direction, via the use of a television prop, which is well integrated as a tool to keep up to date with the outside world. It echoes how we are all trapped by the information we are fed via the media as well as highlighting Messalina's alienation from the outside world due to her imprisonment. Messalina's prison is her bedroom, which is both appropriate and ironic, as it was her bedroom antics that led to her ruin.

Messalina is unwilling to apologise for her sexuality or for her adultery, which is both brave and slightly sad at the same time. She believes it is her right to 'come' and if her husband is unable to perform this duty, she owes him no further loyalty; she is exonerated from her matrimonial obligations. Drusus, her adviser, played with conviction by Oengus Macnamara, urges Messalina to perform this public duty in an attempt to save her life, as does her mother Lepida, played by Linnie Reedman, but Messalina shows no remorse or respect to either Mother or Legal Counsel. Messalina's party is truly over.

Owen Horsley's production is vivid without playing on the sexual explicitness of the story. His use of space and direction highlights his command and confidence over the stage. The only disappointment is in the lack of dramatic action within the very well written text. Unfortunately, the text only ever describes the action that takes place either off stage, or in the past, instead of the story unfolding before the audience. Due to the passive structure of the narrative, there is little conflict and little physiological change among the characters.

Where the story lacked depth, the actors overcompensate with passionate performances. Kelly Hotten has the task of holding the audience's constant attention and the character of Messalina is so enjoyable that she indeed keeps us enthralled: her energy and commitment is undisputed. There are some comic moments created by Messalina and her entourage played by Chris Urch, the extremely camp and very loyal attendant Lucius, and David Tudor, who plays Lucullus. They create an amusing duo who skate very close to familiar stereotypes, buty without portraying two dimensional characters. In Bed With Messalina is an ambitious story, but the text needs a little more revision.