Anyone who's seen Rome on TV will have an idea of the politicking and jostling for power that went on. But this play, set about 100 years later, makes the machinations of Pompey and Caesar look like the election for a parish council.
Gregory Doran’s clear, uncluttered production would have been sobering viewing for any party political apparatchiks as the limitations of human power are revealed. Jonson's text isn't always easy to follow – knowledge of the period would be useful to keep up with the various relationships and political alliances - but Doran quickly draws us into the story.
As Sejanus, William Houston gives a powerful performance, stopping at nothing on his rise to the top. Eschewing any attempt at political charm, his Sejanus builds on his fearsome reputation to cower opposition. What's missing perhaps is the Machiavellian manoeuvring that the character needed to work his way to the top.
There are sympathetic performances from Geoffrey Freshwater as the principled general Silius and by Nigel Cooke as the sardonic senator Arruntius. Barry Stanton’s Tiberius is a wily old actor, seemingly approaching senescence while always staying one step ahead of Sejanus.
His downfall comes swiftly and Jonson takes us there brilliantly. The coup (in more ways than one) is swiftly handled and the audience is almost as dumbstruck as the Senate when Sejanus is bundled from power.
But it’s the aftermath that’s perhaps most shocking: the description of his dead body being butchered and his statues being vandalised show us how Sejanus was the spiritual heir to Stalin, Ceaucescu and Saddam and reminds a modern audience of how superbly Jonson encapsulated the political process in under three hours.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from July 2005 and this production's earlier Stratford run.
Violent insurrection, intensive state surveillance and a capital city profoundly ill at ease with itself: Sejanus, alas, could scarcely be more topical.
Ben Jonson, like other Elizabethan playwrights, was only able to write about the events of the London he lived and worked in by locating the action in an historical setting - in this case, classical Rome. Even so, this play still attracted the censure of the authorities, though why exactly, is not now clear.
The setting of this tragedy, the fourth offering in the RSC's Gunpowder season, will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen Julius Caesar. A Caesar, in this case the later Tiberius, is all-powerful. The republic is under threat and its supporters look back with deep regret and anguish to its pomp.
Sejanus is a low-born soldier elevated to the right-hand man of Caesar but with an ambition that threatens to eclipse even the tyranny of his mentor. He is superbly played by William Houston who largely reprises his role as the villainous Flaminius in Believe What You Will, also in repertoire at the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Critics of the RSC have recently pointed to deficiencies in verse-speaking, but it's not a charge that can be levelled at Houston who’s ably supported by a cast that includes Peter De Jersey as Macro and James Hayes as Sabinus.
Ironically, what first distinguishes this production is the decision of director Gregory Doran to set it in ancient Rome complete with Doric pillars, laurel wreaths and togas. Simply stuffing a cast into modern combat fatigues equipped with machine-guns doesn't necessarily make it feel contemporary.
Behind these pillars, and sometimes underground, lurk the spies of the state, ready to pounce on the slightest hint of disaffection. Jonson, you soon realise, saw both the past and the present darkly, marked as he was, and as the programme notes, by a profound intellectual pessimism and scepticism about public life.
One feels the first half, even so, mired in rhetoric at times. The pace picks up in the second, however, with a series of short, sharp scenes punctuated by Peter Englishby’s score which ratchets up the tension to a thrilling climax.
Houston, we have lift off.
- Pete Wood