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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Sejanus - His Fall
Trafalgar Studios January 2006

The third in the RSC's season of Shakespeare's contemporaries is Ben Jonson's one tragedy, and as with the others it may be just the opportunity to see this rarely-performed work that is the greatest attraction.

In first-century Rome the general Sejanus attaches himself to Emperor Tiberius and, through a combination of flattery and the occasional murder, rises to near-dictatorial power. But the Emperor turns out to mistrust him as much as his enemies do, and his fall is even more abrupt than his rise.

The play has a lot of things going for it. If the rise-and-fall structure is a bit too pat and Jonson's politically-expedient warnings against ambition a bit pushy, the writing is good, with epigrams and couplets worthy of Shakespeare. The scene in which the patriot Silius defends himself in a Sejanus-rigged show trial is strong, as is the ironic sequence in which Sejanus's toadies and hangers-on sense the tide turning against him and begin distancing themselves.

On the other hand, Sejanus is just too one-dimensional to sustain our emotional involvement. (The Shakespeare play this most resembles is Richard III, and Sejanus is just a much less interesting character.) A quartet of his political enemies who serve as a commenting chorus are frequently more interesting, just because they express and debate interesting issues.

And Gregory Doran's production does too little to bring out the play's strengths or cover its weaknesses. Indeed, Doran seems too often not to trust the play, adding irrelevant and distracting razzle-dazzle to paper over scenes he evidently thinks not strong enough to stand on their own.

In two consecutive early scenes we see Sejanus graphically humping a woman and a boy he is luring into a murder plot, and later the murder itself is shown onstage - all of this, I need hardly mention, not in the text. That strong courtroom scene is almost ruined by having the actor shout and rant wildly and, indeed, far too many of the actors have been directed to overact and signify externally, like over-enthusiastic amateurs.

As Sejanus, William Houston has been directed to come on from the opening scene as a raving looney, wild-eyed and grinning maniacally, which - aside from being not particularly interesting to watch - gives actor and character no place to go for the rest of the play.

Geoffrey Freshwater as Silius and James Hayes, Nigel Cooke and Keith Osborn as Sejanus's other foes create realistic, empathetic characters. Peter De Jersey has one strong scene as the general used by the Emperor to bring Sejanus down, and Kevin Harvey (one of the few whose overacting works) turns one of Sejanus's toadies into a vibrant comic character.

This may well be the only chance you'll get in your lifetime to see this play. And that, ultimately, may be the main reason to see it.

 

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Sejanus - RSC Trafalgar 2006