Bloody malevolence drips down through the centuries
Charles Spencer reviews Sejanus: His Fall at the Trafalgar Studios
This may sound like the excuse of a schoolboy who hasn't done his homework, but I decided not to read this almost forgotten play by Ben Jonson before seeing it in the theatre.
It is not every day one has the chance to witness a drama by a great writer that hasn't received a major production for four centuries, and I wanted to experience it with fresh eyes and ears. Would it justify this rare revival, or prove no more than a grindingly dull exercise in theatrical archaeology?
I can only report that Gregory Doran's thrilling production, first seen at the Swan in Stratford last summer, knocked me for six. Written at the troubled end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, and performed – to derision – shortly after James I ascended the throne, it's a gripping political thriller that uses ancient Rome to comment on the political climate of Jonson's own age.
Sejanus conjures up a vicious vision of the spies, plotting, political absolutism, cruelty and censorship that were all such a feature of Good Queen Bess's allegedly golden age, and not surprisingly the play landed its author in hot water.
Jonson was hauled before the Privy Council and accused of “popery and treason” – though somehow he emerged unscathed.
Doran has edited the text, first published in 1605, down to a manageable running time of less than three hours, and bravely opts for a togas-and-sandals production rather than modern dress.
We are thus allowed to spot the play's resonance with our own political landscape without directorial nudging. When Sejanus speaks of “presenting the shapes of dangers greater than they are”, for instance, we don't need a dig in the ribs to be reminded of Tony Blair's claims about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.
Sejanus, right-hand man and chief butcher to the Emperor Tiberius, is presented as a stomach-churningly malign anti-hero intent on slaughtering his way to the top. He inflames the emperor with paranoia and suspicion about potential rivals, thus receiving carte blanche to do away with those who stand in his own way to the imperial throne.
But Tiberius proves more than a match for him in subtle treachery, and the relationship seems to anticipate the pairing of villains that provides the dark heart of Jonson's later comedy, Volpone.
Doran directs with such bravura that it hardly seems to matter that the stage is populated with great crowds of virtually indistinguishable Roman nobles.
There is, for instance, the extraordinary scene in which Sejanus regales the audience with his wicked plans even as he buggers a serviceable go-between, and throughout William Houston plays this charismatic psycho-killer with superb panache.
There is something frighteningly feral about his high-definition performance. You can almost smell the lust for power. Houston's eyes glitter with mad malevolence, and the huge smile that splits his cruel face in two offers all the reassurance of a fox making its way into the hen house.
Houston superbly captures the sheer euphoria of evil – there's an electrifying moment when the actor leaps several feet into the air like a latterday Nureyev with a great cry of exultation – and he delivers his monomaniacal soliloquies with lip-smacking relish.
Among the supporting cast, Barry Stanton makes an unforgettably obese and decadent Tiberius, tiptoeing fastidiously round the blood he has allowed Sejanus to spill, and Peter de Jersey's powerful performance as another subtle plotter, Macro, indicates that the state terror will continue long after Sejanus's fall.
Four centuries after its première, this undeservedly neglected play retains a tremendous power to thrill and chill.
# Until Jan 28. Tickets: 0870 060 6632
Filed under: Main Page, Perfomances | Leave a Comment »