One Small Scene: “I’ve done many terrible things Claudius.”
Livia Drusilla Julia Augusta says continues her discussion with her nephew Claudius. Chalked with perfume to suggest her age, Siân Phillips tone changes, and there is one sentence of clarity before continuing with a great deal more honesty.
“I’ve done many terrible things Claudius.”
The eyes shake for a moment, the distant look suiting the impressions of classic Rome from statues or something like a thespian performance gives way as Livia shifts her gaze nervously to the left for a moment before stating her rationalisations.
Her poisoning and plotting makes a kind of sense, her perspective as matriarch understandable. Not even so obviously self-serving in context to Augustus; for why would she need to profess loyalty to Roman empire and stability when her motive to save her own soul if revealed. A tyrant, thoroughly unpleasant, a murderer and manipulator, many have been exiled or executed directly upon this woman’s orders, as Livia used her mental strength to wed herself to the Emperor and all but usurp his reign.
Yet now, suffering the same issue as her husband with the need to force dynastic power across the generations of hedonists and soldiers, her attempt to support Caligula highlights Robert Graves’s story’s proclivity to show the decline into worse, much worse. A deviant child, following on from the elderly debauchees that wish to grant him power solely for their own gain and to appear less evil to history, before dying Livia has seen an Empire rise, and any notion of its moral virtue or more importantly its efficiency and import erode before her very eyes, as damnation seems to loom closer before her aged eyes.
Absolutely everything is explained, with a little more clarity than the book the series adapts. So many plots spanning generations, easily said. It’s such a different scene of the series, not merely for lacking bombastic voices or displays of aggression, but due to the nature of a fantastically quick observation during dialogue that Claudius speaks without his stutter. The lowest Claudian and the highest, the serious woman in a moment of demonstrating her evident solitary self-organising, rather than her on screen tendency to make snide remarks and appear verbally disinterested.
“It was hard…very hard. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.”
The bite of exclusion, debauchery, and the rather pertinent lesson that the most active and underhanded succeed over the unassuming makes the story one of the more underrated parables in 20th century fiction.
“They won’t allow me in because I’m a woman and they won’t allow you in because you’re a fool. That’s strange when you come to think of it, because it’s filled with nothing but old women and fools, haha!”
Suddenly Livia cares, honest with cynicism. Her sentiments are bared, likely for the first time in her life to one not of her cadre of female poisoners and corrupt priestesses. And in combination with genuine vulnerability, the scene upends the creeping atmosphere of insanity, the insanity of the elderly Claudius recounting his ‘Secret History’ in the same fashion as Procopius, regarding the madness of Imperial Rome as the real scholar wrote of Byzantium.
Siân Phillips really does steal the show. Not with a wit, with excellent comedy of the darkest shade. Not with a voice like a whip, It is no wonder she was cast as Gaius Helen Mohaim, and how apt that casting was.
But that this portrayal demanded a somewhat later middle aged woman to grey, going from powdered and aged with makeup to a woman with whisps of white for hair. Yet the voice, Phillips’s voice, Livia’s voice remains rich, enough to be a narrator of this story, in hindsight given the attention she draws as much of a historical protagonist as Claudius (if not status as the hero or unreliable narrator).
This moment is vital for its expository nature, answering the source of Claudius’s supposed historical veracity and claims to objectivity. And the lurid, disgusting moment in this adaptation where Caligula (a youthful John Hurt) embraces her kicks the harder for eliciting our empathy.
This scene appeals to the natural human need to understand, our instinct for empathy, how the truth can be revealed all at once, and prophecy be an undeniable hook in prose and theatre. This no doubt wicked, tenacious, formidable murderess exposes not frailty, nor honesty. But something more, and this line, of all her many discourses, quips and revelations holds the greatest power.
How much more cutting it is, the one time Claudius laughs at her, honestly, less as a bully and more one reminding a wicked woman of mortality. His amusement at the idea is no less scornful, mocking as she has mocked him, and entirely lacking in empathy. The notion of Livia being terrible, having committed terrible crimes is no shock. That she would share with him, and predict he will take imperial power is ridiculed, another mark of what truly hurts the woman; mockery and being undermined.
Extreme as it sounds, the Romans, even the very head of the state believes so firmly in this escape from eternal damnation. One could see the moment, one of many in the series wherein a character’s profile faces forwards with the unaware in the foreground, and Livia being the woman at that. But for a change, she is being quite literally laughed at, Claudius guffawing at her accurate summation at becoming future emperor. Laughing at the woman could be construed as karmic, as comeuppance for many a villain in this tale who wanes in power and bows to the lurch of fate. But I think it is rather meant to be bitingly tragic, as are the silent tears when Livia regards the husband she poisoned. One wonders, given no answer, but invited to ask their mind about how they feel about the situation. Were her tears genuine? How much does she care for the son she hectors? It can only really be assured in this scene, due to her panic and non-barbed honesty how Livia truly feels.
A small, delicately worded line. From one small scene; yet it belies all the haunted honesty that even quite a thoroughly villainous woman can inspire, and make us question our level of empathy or understanding, witnessing one with power face the prospect of powers greater still, of eternal damnation, and find a kind of helplessness and reliance on prophecy that shaped it all.