The forestage of the Swan at Stratford is bare. Towards the rear, four huge marble Doric columns soar upwards, visually signifying the might of Rome . Around and amongst these columns Roman senators, intelligencers, generals and foot-soldiers plot and spy, jostle for preferential position, fawning over the latest to be graced by the personal attention of the Emperor Tiberius. This neo-classical evocation is perfectly suited to Jonson's masterful and erudite tragedy about the rise and fall of a particularly politicized Roman, the Commander of the elite Praetorian Guard, Sejanus. After many campaigns on behalf of his emperor, after countless intrigues at home and abroad, Sejanus sees his opportunity to rise to the heights of political ambition: to inherit the title of Roman Emperor. His method? Seduction, flattery, bribery, murder and cold, cold-blooded determination.
Almost single-handedly, Gregory Doran is breathing life into so many rarely performed plays. Apart from a few academics who wax lyrical about the contemporary failure of Jonson's Roman tragedy, Sejanus, or wildly conjecture about the highly unlikely decision of Shakespeare to portray the emperor Tiberius himself at the Globe, Jonson's play would undoubtedly remain unnoticed on countless university library bookshelves. As associate director at the RSC, Doran seems on a mission: to present on the Swan stage examples of early modern drama that shine in their own dramatic glory. As Doran recognizes, Elizabethan and Jacobean London was not just Shakespeare; other playwrights were forging their own popularity and commercial success.
Of course, Sejanus was not one of Jonson's great successes, and the age in which it was performed might have impacted on its reception. Although first published in 1605, there is a tantalising reference at the beginning of Jonson's 1616 Folio to Sejanus's first performance in 1603, just as James came to the throne. 1616, the year that Shakespeare died and yes, Jonson had beaten the Bard to it with a Folio, a full seven years before Heminge and Condell published Shakespeare's own huge volume. If Jonson is right in his dating, and we have to consider a certain adjustment for political or personal reasons, then Sejanus might represent the first play performed at the Globe by the newly-named and royally patronized King's Men.
"Enough of this conjecture," I hear you scream, "what about the play?" Well, it might be classically inspired in all its references, might be wordy, full of set speeches that stretch the actor and his memory, might be bloody and dirty and wild, but it is such great entertainment and such a well-crafted tale. It helps, of course, that the performances match the product. William Houston, in the title role, is a machiavellian anti-hero from the tip of his classically broken nose to the toe of his warrior sandals. Houston doesn't so much command the stage, as dominate it. His energy and dynamism create a completely believable character, whose paranoia and lust for power provide the ultimate incentives for success.
Houston is supported by a cast of characters who inhabit this Roman world with absolute conviction and sincerity. Doran has consciously not mudded the waters of the narrative by imposing anachronistic comments or political side-swipes at the contemporary British scene. This play stands as a Roman tragedy, and the visual impact of the designer Robert Jones's toga-clad senators and armoured legionaries assists in the clarity of an otherwise impenetrable play. Never fear, this is no historicized museum piece; what it has is an immediacy and impact worthy of a Hollywood epic.
In a great cast, Geoffrey Freshwater stands out as the wrongly accused old senator Silius, whose impassioned defence precedes his glorious suicide. Nigel Cooke as Arruntius is a vociferous opponent to Sejanus; Cooke plays Arruntius like a ruddy drunkard whose ranting and railing is barely tolerated, but whose honesty always hits the mark.
These good senators are opposed by a bevy of flatterers, eager to side with the upstart Sejanus. Ewan Cummins is wonderfully slimy as the fleering Regulus; Michael Jenn as Satrius and Tim Treloar as Natta, the spies of Sejanus, stalk the senate with the eyes and ears of vultures. A comic joy is Kevin Harvey as the pompous senator, Afer, whose priggish pronouncements and effusive praise is only matched by the speed of his rejection of his hero when Sejanus finally meets his untimely end.
All these characters are ultimately ruled by their emperor, Tiberius. Barry Stanton is dutifully seedy in his predatory control of the masses. Disfigured by the disease of his sexual deviancy, Stanton portrays an Emperor at once easily flattered, but ever able to control a nation who can, at any moment, tear their leaders literally limb from limb. Tiberius has to contend with the love the people feel for the late Germanicus and his widow, Agrippina. Ishia Bennison is perfect as Agrippina, grieving for her husband and nurturing her sons, Nero and Caligula. We know that her offspring ultimately succeed to the governance of Rome. For now, Agrippina can only watch and worry as those near Tiberius poison and accuse their way into positions of power.
This is an infamously long play. It is, as I have said, a play which taxes the actor's skills to the full. Long speeches and heightened emotion are at the forefront. It is easy to imagine why it might have failed at the time, later to be recognized as a wonderful play by those who sought the intellectual stimulation of study and analogy that only the printed work permits. Doran has not allowed this reputation to thwart his own vision for Sejanus. At just under three hours with an interval, Sejanus demands the audience's willingness to concentrate, to listen, to experience, however vicariously, the bloody intrigue of Rome. It is well worth the effort. The rewards are the opportunity to see and hear a political masterpiece of spin and counter-spin.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005