Next up in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 'Gunpowder' season at the Trafalgar Studios is 'Believe What You Will'. It was written in 1630 by Philip Massinger (1583-1640). Originally entitled 'Believe What You List', it was ‘considered too dangerous to license’ when Massinger first wrote it because it was based on events that took place some 50 years or so earlier when the King of Portugal was roundly beaten in battle by the Moors. Two years later, Portugal was annexed by the Spanish whereupon a number of people presented themselves as the 'lost' King of Portugal, most of whom were captured and executed. In 1630, England signed a peace agreement with Spain, so Massinger's play might well have caused some undesired political embarrassment, to say the least.
Rather than consign his work to the 17th century equivalent of the shredder, Massinger re-wrote his play setting it in Asia in the second century BC, with the Romans cast as the political demons. King Antiochus, presumed dead in battle some 22 years earlier, suddenly reappears to claim his throne. In his absence, the political climate has moved on and the Romans are raking-in taxes from the highly lucrative trade in their eastern provinces. Rome, represented by their ambassador Titus Flaminius, has no intention of allowing a lost king to upset their financial apple cart, and duly hounds the 'monarch' wherever he goes, torturing him at some length as events develop.
'Believe What You Will' offers obvious parallels with recent events around the world most notably in the Middle East, and one could easily substitute the Americans for the Romans, because the play is essentially about the power of states, and how political expediency overrides truth and justice.
Peter De Jersey takes the lead as the harried Antiochus. He's covered in blood or wounds for most of the play as he's subjected to violence not only at the hands of the Romans but also by his own followers, who are fed up of wandering the world following a proud man who has 'loser' written all over him. De Jersey produces a proud and dignified portrayal that's largely convincing, but also leaves one with the impression that Antiochus rather relishes his situation as well as his repeated torture.
Wiiliam Houston (who played the lead in 'Sejanus: His Fall') once again draws the short straw with the role of the bad-guy, Roman ambassador Titus Flaminius. Sweeping round the stage and making asides to the audience, Houston's performance reminded me of a villain of the silent movie era, but without the obligatory moustache. Nevertheless, it's an impressive performance that embodies the gutter qualities of political maneuvering. Still, Flaminius gets his just deserts in the end, even if King Antiochus doesn't get his kingdom back in spite of the validity of his claim.
Josie Rourke's generally capable production is suitably sober and dignified with atmospheric use of music and singing, but with one notable exception, Barry Stanton's Berecinthius. With strange gestures and repeated covering of his head with his tunic, it brought a naivety if not a highly unusual amateurish quality to the part that was neither necessary, nor appropriate; the overall effect being distinctly odd, rather than comic.
As with the other plays in this season, a simple brick wall provides the basic setting that is augmented with props, and in this production some highly effective lighting. And Rourke has sensibly opted for seventeenth century dress (other than Mark Springer's prologue who was dressed in a modern business suit).
The most important achievement of the 'Gunpowder' season has been to bring little known or rarely produced plays to modern audiences. 'Sejanus: His Fall', 'Thomas More' and 'Believe What You Will' have all been intriguing political dramas, which have shown us the similarities between our own concerns and those of sixteenth and seventeenth century dramatists. It's rather depressing to find that things haven't changed much.
Production photo by Manuel Harlan