“Spartacus” returns for “Gods of the Arena” prequel

By Stacey Harrison

After last year’s hugely successful run of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which combined 300-style visuals with ornate, Shakespearean dialogue — along with generous amounts of sex and nudity — the stage appeared set for a long, successful run.

That path took a tragic turn, however, when leading man Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer before Season 2 could begin shooting, and the production crew was left with the possibility of having to close down for a year while he recovered. Instead, the creators came up with the idea to go back and further explore the gladiator arena — a setting that was vital to the show’s first season, but most likely would not figure into the show’s future.

What started out as a flashback episode for Season 2 has turned into a six-episode prequel miniseries that delves deeper into the histories of popular characters and how they came to be whom audiences saw in Season 1. John Hannah returns as Batiatus, ruler of the house of gladiators, and it is his complicated relationship with his father — which was only hinted at in Season 1 — that provides much of the series’ conflict, according to writer/executive producer Steven S. DeKnight. Also returning is Lucy Lawless as Lucretia, Batiatus’ lethally ambitious wife, along with Peter Mensah and Manu Bennett.

“For me, Lucretia and Batiatus have existed in this gray area,” DeKnight says. “Yes, they do bad things, but they’re just a couple of people trying to make it in the world. Here we really get the genesis of that. We get to see early on the struggles for Batiatus to prove himself … [and] to meet Batiatus’ father, which was a huge thing for us. … It’s definitely the formative years of Batiatus and Lucretia. You do see where they begin to go down a bad path.”

DeKnight insists that the prequel is a stand-alone story that can be enjoyed without having seen Season 1, but will also reward longtime Spartacus fans, as well as introduce story elements that will inform Season 2.

The new blood in the series comes from Dustin Clare, who plays Gannicus, a gladiator vying to become champion in the house of Batiatus. DeKnight says he and producing partner Robert Tapert had been impressed with Clare from his work as a psychotic hitman in the Australian crime drama Underbelly and originally pictured him for a Season 2 role.

By all accounts, Clare has fit in well with the cast and crew, and he says his character requires more from him than a chiseled physique.

“Gannicus is a character full of contradictions; his private life versus his public life belie each other,” Clare says. “He finds ways to deal with his reality, but those fixes come from a place of addiction and self-harm. … He … has a cockiness that comes from a place of confidence and undeniable skill, [but] his strong relationship with Oenomaus [Mensah] hinted to me that there was a deeper, more complex and sensitive man hiding beneath what he may project.”

Photo: ©2010 Starz Entertainment, LLC Credit: Matt Klitscher