Carthage Must Be Destroyed

Alan Wilkins
Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath
(2008)

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The Ustinov's masterful revival of Alan Wilkins' Carthage Must Be Destroyed, spotlights the political wrangling within Cato's Rome. Then, as now, the skies are darkened by economic recession, and the political body is driven by spin-doctors more than by political conviction. Deals are made and broken in private ever before they become the subject of public debate; then, in the steam-filled haze of a Roman bathhouse or now on the nineteenth hole. "Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead", Wilkins writes in the programme, "is entirely inevitable".

The modern resonances keep on coming. Rome invades Carthage not because it poses any real threat, but because the spoils of war are just too tempting to pass up. "We need to create money", Cato explains, "before we can take it away". John Stahl's authoritative Cato kick-starts a PR campaign designed to engineer a public cry for war on Carthage. Waging war isn't enough for this leader: he needs to design the perfect war, so that he can emerge from it the reluctant hero. He needs the permission of a "clamour of voices". He tells his inner-circle, "Carthage must be destroyed and it starts with a whisper", alluding to the "lucrative contracts" that might reward their loyalty. And so the spin begun in private comes to manipulate public opinion and in turn, to dictate government policy.

The parallels are potent and delivered without heavy-handedness; but the real pull of Wilkins' text and Lorne Campbell's production is the humanity which drives the narrative. This is an intensely male world; homo-erotica adorns the walls, colours the conversation and underpins the social interaction. Paul Blair's conflicted Gregor is driven as much by his quest for love and his lust for beautifully-featured young boys as he is by political ambition. Blair's transformation is astounding: his naked confidence of the first act stripped from him in the second.

This is a weighty and well-considered production from a flawless cast. Campbell's sensitive direction and Wilkins' outstanding text leaves you with as many uneasy questions about the nature of love and ambition as it does war and political leadership.

At the Ustinov until December 20th

Reviewer: Allison Vale