"When a cast headed by Tom Mannion takes to the stage of the Crucible theatre in Sheffield this evening, they will be embarking on the first major revival of a play that retains a notorious place in theatrical history.
It is just over a quarter of a century since Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain opened in London in what proved to be one of the most controversial productions the National Theatre has staged. For the generation - including Sheffield's new artistic director, Samuel West - too young to have caught the play which provoked the decency campaigner Mary Whitehouse to apoplexy, it will be the first opportunity since 1980 for a proper reassessment of the work.
All those involved hope that The Romans in Britain will be finally seen as what West describes as 'an epic, funny and beautiful play'. Back then, all attention focused on a single scene in which a Roman soldier rapes a druid, a simulation which outraged Mrs Whitehouse and her supporters, although Brenton intended it to be seen as a war crime.
Although police decided the play broke no public decency laws, she pursued its director, Michael Bogdanov, under an imaginative interpretation of the Sexual Offences Act in which it was claimed he was acting as a pimp in having procured the actors. A judge supported the interpretation, which has deterred many revivals since, even though Mrs Whitehouse herself eventually withdrew the prosecution.
The play is a critique of the Roman invasion of Britain and repression of Celtic culture with explicit parallels to modern British involvement in Northern Ireland. "It's to do with imperialism," Bogdanov said. "The play continues to be significant in the light of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Romans overran Britain, ignoring the Celtic culture. It's exactly what we do around the world and Americans do it in the name of democracy everywhere.""