Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Spartacus - Gods of the Arena: 'You'll go out and wonder why men aren't all wearing dirty-grey loin cloths'

If you're unfamiliar with the heady world of Spartacus, the amount of blood, violence and impossibly honed beefcake takes quite a lot to get used to at first. It's like the producers, drunk on the success of the first series Blood and Sand, decided what they thought had worked, and demanded more. MORE!

But by the end of episode one of this prequel series, you'll likely be desensitised to it all. Gratuitous be-headings, CGI blood that spurts in the most dramatic of fashions with not a transfusion in sight, and frequent references to 'small cock' as an insult: you'll shrug it all off as if you were watching soft little kittens at play in a basket in a meadow.

You may also end up going out in the street and wondering why men aren't all wearing dirty-grey loin cloths and fighting each other to the death, but that's neither here nor there.
John Hannah and Dustin Clare in Gods of the Arena: Dustin plays Gannicus
Despite the violence, Gods of the Arena is sometimes quite hard to take seriously, but beneath the romp and the orgies and the impressive mixed martial arts-inspired fight sequences there are much darker themes - oh yes - of ambition, rivalry, slavery, exploitation, and murder so casual it's shocking in its brutality.

The show strikes many different beats with its 'plot', which explores the House of Batiatus gladiator school before the arrival of Spartacus, but the world created is so visually consistent it seductively fits together, like a heavy eye-lidded suitor with lust in their eyes.

This is how it can lurch from, say, a ridiculous soft-porno-like lesbian sex scene with a smoky (and apparently pan-pipes inspired) Eastern-themed soundtrack, to scenes of 'proper acting' with John Hannah's Batiatus, the Roman owner of  the school, arguing with a bloke who used to be in Neighbours (Steven Lovatt who played Max Hoyland), to scenes of brutal, stylised violence.

Jaime Murray and Lucy Lawless in Gods of the Arena: raunchy romp not shown

Its other success is having strong characters you want to watch, and the production difficulties that brought about this prequel (series one lead Andy Whitfield's illness meant a suspension of a planned second series while he recovered, and so a hastily put-together six part prequel, expanding on a planned flashback sequence in the original season two, was made instead, although Whitfield sadly died) meant a return for Hannah and his screen wife, Lucy Lawless's Lucretia - a brilliant pairing that's at the heart of the show.

So we see Lucretia as younger and more playful, and how (and why) she became the colder, more ambitious manipulator we see in Blood and Sand, and we learn how Batiatus took control of the Gladiator house from his father, while building the reputation of his gladiator arena.

It's a fun, engrossing and a well-realised six episodes that could be watched before or after Blood and Sand - but it's really not for the squeamish or those of, how you say, delicate ears or eyes.

And an extra on the DVD, 'On set with Lucy Lawless', is definitely worth a watch for its comedy value. In fact, it's posted right here right now to save you the trouble of searching for it. Ta da!

Related links:
Spartacus: Blood and Sand: 'Lashings of saucy romping here there and everywhere'

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