The Theatreguide.London Review
The Roman Actor
Gielgud Theatre Autumn-Winter 2002
Philip Massinger's 1626 play is perhaps the weakest in the RSC's season devoted to other writers of the Shakespearean age, but it has some strong scenes, both serious and comic, along with the opportunity for some real chew-up-the-scenery grand acting, and so it is well worth the seeing.
A tyrannical emperor is also a theatre buff, and enjoys watching the performances of the title character to break up the monotony of ordering tortures and executions.
But when his power- and sex-hungry empress goes after the actor, the mad despot finds bloody ways to combine both his hobbies.
The plot is actually far more complicated than that, and one of the play's weaknesses is that both our attention and our empathy are so diffused that we have trouble getting involved.
No sooner does a seeming hero come along than the emperor kills him off, and by the time the bad guy gets his come-uppance there are only some relatively minor characters left standing to do it.
Still, between the cheer-the-hero-hiss-the-villain melodrama, the many lightly comic touches, and the several pastiche plays-within-the-play - all inventively staged by Sean Holmes - there's a lot of fun to be had along the way.
Antony Sher has a lot of fun with the villain's role, showing us a character who swings from tyrant to buffoon and back before we realize he's just plain crazy - and once Sher lets us see that, he and we have even more fun.
Joe Dixon plays the title character, making the best of a role whose biggest moment comes at the very beginning, when he has an eloquent and impassioned speech defending the theatre against its moral critics.
Anna Madeley is all icy menace as the cold-bloodedly hot-blooded empress, and Antony Byrne is strong as a court toady who develops a moral sense.
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