Philip Massinger's play is described as a "tragicomedy" - a term which, all too often, is used for plays that are neither tragic nor funny. This time, however, the description is spot on.
Ostensibly about the Roman dictator, Domitian - a ruler whose blood lust exceeds that of Nero and Caligula, as one character puts it - the play is really a laudatory commentary on the acting profession. At its start, the actors of Rome are under threat from the senate, forcing the tragedian Paris into a meaty speech declaiming that actors "search into the secrets of the time, / And under feigned names on the stage present / Actions not to be touch'd at".
The three plays within the play demonstrate Massinger's own skill at playing with theatrical conventions, and there's another dimension, too. Massinger, remember, was writing at a time when theatres were threatened with closure on a regular basis (about 15 years after the play was first performed, London's theatres were shuttered permanently), and there's no doubt an element of self-justification in his play.
Sean Holmes' pacy production draws out every subtlety of the author's text. He elevates the comedic elements and plays on the blurring between what is fictional drama and what is reality.
The part of Domitian is almost made for Antony Sher. In the 21st century, having experienced the theatrical tastes of Hitler, Mussolini and others, we can recognise how leaders are all actors at hearts. Here Domitian literally becomes a performer to kill Paris, his speech justifying his actions, a superb example of political double-think.
There are strong performances elsewhere, too. Joe Dixon's robust Paris has to deliver the scene-stealing 'actor speech' but, despite his posturing, he's suitably hesitant in the face of Anna Madeley's imperious Domitia's seduction. Some of the smaller parts are equally well played; Antony Byrne is an excellent Parthenius, slowly shifting his allegiances, and Michael Thomas is a chilling Aretinus, the spy.
Adrian Lee's strident music is a perfect accompaniment to the momentous events on stage, complementing the action and never distracting.
While the urge of politicians to play actor is often bemoaned as a modern malaise, Massinger's visionary piece reminds us that presentation played its part in politics well before the current age of spin doctors. On stage here, we're never quite sure who the Roman actor of the title refers to - the hapless Paris or the showman tyrant Domitian. It could easily be either, though this excellent production is undoubtedly Sher's show.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following review dates from June 2002 and this production's original run at Stratford.
Although little known and rarely performed, Philip Massinger's The Roman Actor is a surprisingly good play. Written ten years after Shakespeare's death, it may lack the psychological insight and tragic profundity of the Bard's greatest plays, but it remains absorbing and engaging in its own right.
It's central role - that of the Roman Emperor Domitian who makes Nero and Caligula look like softies - requires an actor of consummate ability, and the RSC is lucky to have someone of Antony Sher's stature to take in on here. Sher has matured into a wonderful actor. A few years ago, the role of this mad, lustful, power-crazed Emperor would have led him over the top into his worst excesses. But now he's measured and calculating, taking you to the brink but always remaining horrifyingly credible.
When Sher's autocrat discovers that his wife has become besotted with the Roman actor, Paris, he wreaks a terrible revenge. Paris has some noble lines defending the art of acting and denouncing political censorship of the theatre and Joe Dixon delivers them well, but there's not much more to the part. Instead, it's Anna Madeley as the Emperor's spouse who comes closest to challenging Sher for the acting plaudits. She combines remarkable youthful beauty (there's definite Juliet potential here) with a wickedness and lust for power that rivals her husband's.
Shelley Conn, Sian Howard and Amanda Drew have a great time as the trio of displaced princesses who hate the pride and arrogance of the new Empress and contrive the downfall both of her and her husband. They pout and plot like avenging furies. In fact, all the acting is good, but how wonderful for director Sean Holmes to have an actor of the calibre of Jamie Glover up his sleeve to use in just the dying moments of the play. Glover ties up the loose ends and concludes the evening with real authority.
The Roman Actor is a good story simply told. There's plenty of black humour and the horror is used sparingly. Massinger explores two main themes. One is the role of the theatre in society (there's more than one echo of the players in Hamlet); the other is the nature of political power and the need for a ruler to control himself if he's to rule his people effectively.
The piece is a fine contribution to the RSC's fascinating series of plays at The Swan this summer. These largely unknown works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries make a huge and valuable contribution to our understanding of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre - while also being hugely entertaining.
- Robert Hole
The Roman Actor opened at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon on 30 May 2002 (previews from 22 May) and ran there in repertory until 13 September 2002, before visiting the Newcastle Playhouse from 2 to 10 October 2002.