The RSC’s Gunpowder season continues at Trafalgar Studios with Ben Jonson’s rarely performed classical tragedy Sejanus. Mainly based on the writings of the Imperial Rome historian Tacitus, the play contained enough contemporary parallels for it to receive the attention of the Jacobean censor before being first staged in 1603, and its inclusion of book burning, show trials and the toppling of statues still echoes across our modern political world.
Gregory Doran’s powerful production wisely does not try to over-emphasize the play’s relevance to our society, but presents it as a compelling political thriller.
For a change, here we have a classical drama actually done in period costume – I haven’t seen so many togas and sandals since, well, the BBC’s recent Rome mega-serial. But that TV drama looks positively tame compared with some of the goings-on here, as we follow the progress of the ruthlessly ambitious soldier Sejanus (William Houston), who uses the same brutality in politics as he has in war as the right-hand man of the Emperor Tiberius (Barry Stanton). In fact, as the full title of the play suggests, the focus is on his downfall rather than his rise to power, and because it is impossible to sympathize with such a devious and merciless figure his end seems not so much tragic as a comeuppance.
Doran’s production is very strong on conspiratorial atmosphere, as we see various Senators whispering behind columns, plotting their next moves and trying to guess who is next for the chop in a Rome split between pro-Empire and pro-Republic factions. In this murky world of suspicion and deception, informing and entrapment, the power-hungry Sejanus initially thrives as Tiberius’ enforcer, eliminating the Emperor’s enemies (or potential enemies) with relish.
But – like Marlowe’s over-reachers – he eventually goes too far as he proposes to marry Tiberius’ son’s widow Livia (Miranda Colchester), whom he has already seduced and whose husband he has murdered.
Of course, the play suffers by comparison with Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies, one that is difficult to avoid as Brutus and Cassius are mentioned by the ill-fated historian Cordus (Keith Osborn).
Although Sejanus features some fine dramatic writing (and, indeed, some bawdily comic moments), Jonson’s characterization is one-dimensional compared with Shakespeare’s so that there is no inner conflict within characters, only external conflict between them. Also, though the fickleness of mob behaviour is one of Jonson’s themes, we only hear of their actions taking place off-stage, whereas Shakespeare’s brilliantly theatrical crowd scenes are right in your face.
William Houston plays the eponymous anti-hero as if he was Richard III, an all-or-nothing gambler who murders his way to (almost) the top with sardonic humour and brazen audacity, but fails to be either sufficiently funny or menacing. However, he captures the raw energy of Sejanus, for whom power is an aphrodisiac and sex is all about dominance, as we see him in successive scenes seducing Livia and buggering his own manservant – this is a man who gets off on violence.
Barry Stanton is a wonderfully crafty Tiberius, at once cowardly and dangerous, who relies on Sejanus as long as he is useful but is quite happy to dispense with him once he becomes a threat. Geoffrey Freshwater is nobly impassioned as Silius in his condemnation of Tiberius to the Senate, who prefers to die the Roman way rather than be executed, while Nigel Cooke impresses as the Casca-like Arruntius with his cynical outbursts against the status quo. Peter de Jersey is quietly chilling as Sejanus’ nemesis Macro, who proves to be even more brutal than his erstwhile master, as the river of blood continues to flow through Imperial Rome.