My colleague Pete Wood welcomed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Believe What You Will when the play was unearthed at Stratford-upon-Avon last summer, and now that this valuable (and apparently timelessly topical) theatrical excavation has transferred to London, I see no reason to dispute his verdict.
Written in 1631 and set in the Roman Empire but full of contemporary resonance today about rulers with unchecked imperialist ambitions, the RSC is seriously stretching the repertoire of fascinating classical plays in this season, and the plays have fitted like a glove into the West End’s intimate (but still desperately uncomfortable) Trafalgar Studios.
It seems perverse that, having gone to the trouble of finding such riches, a play like this is only scheduled for a run of less than a fortnight, as all the plays in this transfer season have been. But at least we're getting the chance to see them at all. Book quickly.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from June 2005 and this production’s original season at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre.
According to the programme notes, the controversial nature of the material under examination in this the third play of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Gunpowder season led to the author of Believe What You Will getting into trouble with the authorities. Had they never heard the maxim, "don’t blame the Massinger"?
Of course, the shock factor of these sorts of plays rarely stands the test of time. Therefore, the company's reason for resurrecting such rarely performed relics has to be based either on their intrinsic and overlooked worth as pieces of writing, or their ability to shed light on the life, times and work of Shakespeare, the RSC’s raison d’etre.
This production makes the most convincing case for revival in this season to date. To begin with, it has a startling and unforced topicality. King Antiochus is the former ruler of a Middle Eastern country on the run from the superpower that is Rome. Only too aware that for the region he is a symbol of fight against imperial oppression, legate Titus Flaminius uses a mixture of cajoling and bullying to force neighbouring countries to turn him in. Does this sound familiar?
Happily, poet and playwright Ian McHugh, who has been obliged to write new dialogue to plug the gaps in the text, and director Josie Rourke have eschewed stating any obvious parallels. This allows, as Hugh notes, Massinger’s strength of storytelling and ear for dialogue to speak.
Peter De Jersey, best known for his appearances in TV’s The Bill, is nobility and stoic suffering incarnate as Antiochus; a strong performance, but in truth, a little wearing, as nobility is. As Shakespeare demonstrated, the devil has all the best tunes. Happily, William Houston, last seen here in the Henry VI trilogy, is terrific as the scheming, ice-cold, but mellifluous Flaminius.
Also worthy of note is Barry Stanton turning in an almost Falstaffian performance as Berecinthius, and Jojo O'Neill, excellent in A New Way to Please You, as King Prusias. The production, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, offers an attractive mixture of 17th-century English costume and Middle Eastern dress, with suitably ersatz oriental music by Mick Sands.
It has been argued that, if not quite an establishment stooge, Shakespeare took pains never to rock the boat. This play and this season have helped shed new light on Will and his world.
- Pete Wood