The season of Five ‘Jacobean’ plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company includes ‘The Roman Actor’ a play written by Philip Massinger in 1626. It is a dark tragic comedy that warns of the danger to freedom when monarch’s claim to rule by divine right.
The play is set in Rome, under the rule of Emperor Domitian, a psychotic emperor who claiming to be a deity, delights in creating a dominion of bloody cruelty in which his divine will alone will prevail.
When the emperor forces a man to divorce his wife Domitia so that he may marry her, he soon has reasons to regret his actions for Domitia shows herself to be equally as ruthless and cruel as the emperor himself.
Whilst watching a play performed for the emperor’s pleasure, Domitia finds herself attracted to the emperor’s favourite actor Paris, and so plans to seduce him. When the emperor is informed he barges into Domitia’s chambers to discover her and Paris in an intimate embrace, and so the emperor’s prophesised downfall begins.
Antony Sher plays the role of Domitian with subdued gestures of maniacal conviction. There is nothing melodramatic about his lunacy for this is not an emperor trying to convince himself that he is a god, but the self-assured ravings of a mad man who knows himself to be one. However, though he is convinced of his own deity he suffers moments of anguish-filled bewilderment when things do not always transpire as he decrees. When he has two senators tortured and they stoically except their fate and refuse to cry out in pain, he complains in a camp petulant voice, “I am tortured by their lack of torment”. Domitian lives as if he is only acting the part of a man and at one point he even claims the similarity of a mortal when he says of himself that he sometimes chooses to act “as if I were a man”.
Anna Madeley as Domitia gives an equally strong performance as the scheming minx who uses the emperor’s infatuation for her to deftly mould him to her whim, or so she hopes. Her vexation at being discovered and threatened by her husband explodes with vicious malice.
Paris (Joe Dixon) makes a speech defending the art of acting to his enemies in the senate that almost raises the theatre audience to its feet in applause and idolisation. I doubt if a more spirited defence of the art of acting has ever been written and Joe Dixon delivers it with utter conviction in a masterly voice.
Michael Thomas plays the part of Aretinus, the emperor’s spy with a mischievous spark in his eye and a puckish voice - a delightful cameo of a carry-on comedy character. He stops the play from drifting into a tragic drama and helps to provide a few lighter moments to this tragicomedy.
When do we act and when are we really ourselves. In this play the emperor Domitian fails to be able to tell the difference and despite the rousing erudition by Paris defending the art of acting we discover that the theatre like all art can be used to uplift or to cast down, to enlighten or to tyrannise.
Notices from the popular press....
JOHN TAXTER for THE STAGE says, "Antony Sher, treasurably tyranic as newly anointed emporor Domitian." ROBERT SHORE for TIME OUT says, "Elegantley designed...a company triumph." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Terrific production." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Riveting black comedy."
External links to full reviews from newspapers