The latest offering in the RSC’s ‘Gunpowder’ season is set in early first century Rome. At first sight, this play might seem an odd connection with the plottings of a band of Catholics and their attempts to blow King James I and his parliament to ‘kingdom come’. However, there’s far more relevance than you might imagine. First, it’s becoming clear that the ‘Gunpowder’ season is more about political intrigue in general, rather than the particular conspiracy that we know as the Gunpowder Plot. And the season includes little known or rarely performed work related to the plot, or to its era. In the case of ‘Sejanus: his fall’, there’s a clear link in the author of the play, Ben Jonson, who had become a Catholic, and dined with three of the ‘Gunpowder’ plotters in 1605, even though it appears Jonson had nothing to do with the plot itself.
First performed in 1603, the inaugural year of the reign of King James I, Jonson’s play is a classic study of tyranny, politics and power. But underpinning all of these themes is a more primeval one: fear – the fear of losing one’s position, power, influence, or even one’s very existence.
‘Sejanus: his fall’ is set in Rome during the period AD 19 to AD 31. Tiberius is Emperor, and Lucius Aelius Sejanus his right hand man. At the beginning of the play, Rome is beset by factions. Some of them have been marginalised by Tiberius and Sejanus, whereas others have been favoured and elevated. But everyone lives in fear of Sejanus’s growing power that essentially knows no bounds – his eyes being firmly set on the ultimate Roman prize – the Emperorship itself.
Author Robert Graves chronicled the lives of members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman Emperors in his book ‘I Claudius’ which was made into a highly-acclaimed TV series by the BBC back in 1976 (winning several BAFTAS in 1977). It surveyed the same period of Roman history – also covering the rise and fall of Sejanus in some detail. Having seen the BBC series several times, for me at least, it is the definitive dramatic work on the subject. However, in the capable hands of director Gregory Doran, this RSC production of ‘Sejanus: his fall’ shows itself as an immensely worthy successor in every respect.
As with the other plays in this season, the basic brick wall set is reused, but this time with the addition of four large columns placed centre stage, which serve to turn the basic ‘Gunpowder’ set into ancient Rome. Additionally, period costume and an impressive horn-based score composed by Paul Englishby, add superbly to the overall effect.
William Houston portrays a Sejanus who’s almost frantically breathless for power. But at times, Houston is near child-like in his behaviour, for example as he almost jumps for joy when he thinks he’s going to be the emperor’s successor. At other points in the play, Houston is a power-mad fox who’ll use any means – including his (bi) sexual prowess - to move his career towards his goal. It’s a bold and powerful lead in an almost flawlessly cast play. But this is no ‘one-man show’, because there are fine supporting performances, most notably from Barry Stanton as the Emperor Tiberius, and Geoffrey Freshwater as Silius whose moving and raging attack on the Emperor could only delay the inevitable: his suicide.
What is most impressive in this play, however, is Jonson’s acute observation of the mechanics of politics and power. “Ambition makes more trusty slaves than needs”, he tells us through Sejanus. And Jonson brings home the underlying fear which haunts even those at the top of the imperial pecking order: “Work then my art on Caesar’s fear”, Sejanus remarks, echoing the political background of the Tudor era, and those of more recent times too.
As with the other plays in this impressive and daring season from the RSC, here’s a very rare chance indeed to see a great work by a master playwright. And with relatively few performances, it’s an opportunity to be seized with both hands.
Production photo by Stewart Hemley