The Theatreguide.London Review
Believe What You Will
Trafalgar Studios February 2006
The last in the RSC's season of political plays from the age of Shakespeare (There's a modern play yet to come) proves one of the better ones, with a strong conflict and two solid performances at its centre.
Philip Massinger's 1631 drama follows the Asian king Antiochus as he travels around the fringes of the Roman Empire seeking support in his attempt to reclaim his throne, while Rome, in the form of bureaucrat Titus Flaminius, foils him by subtly and openly threatening war to any country that aids him.
A programme note tells us that Massinger first wrote the play about a then-recent episode involving Spain and Portugal, only to have the censor force a rewrite set in the Second Century, though contemporary audiences would have spotted the parallels. But you don't need that background for the play to work.
The ongoing conflict between the two central characters - the sneering patrician Roman with more than a tinge of sadism and the inherently noble king who is particularly dangerous because he can't be broken - makes for a string of dramatically powerful scenes, and also gives two of the leading actors of the present company their best roles so far.
I would not be surprised to be told that director Josie Rourke gave William Houston as the keynote of his Roman the image of a British regional governor in the Indian raj and suggested that Peter de Jersey keep Nelson Mandela in mind as Antiochus.
Certainly both actors give much stronger and more fully fleshed-out performances than they did as antagonists in Sejanus, involving us in the human story of both men.
Barry Stanton tries too hard to inflate a rather weakly-drawn comic character to Falstaffian proportions, but Nigel Cooke and Teresa Banham have a strong scene defying Rome to support their old friend.
The play is a little slow getting started, and its episodic structure meanders a bit. But keep your eye on the two central characters and you'll find much to hold your attention and emotional involvement.
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