Sejanus: His Fall

Ben Jonson
Royal Shakespeare Company
Trafalgar Studios 1
(2006)

William Houston as Sejanus

Sejanus can be quite hard work but repays concentration in the early scenes with its depiction of an utterly ruthless and evil man. The anti-hero of the play is brought to wonderfully convincing life by William Houston, far from the genial Prince Hal that he played so successfully for the same RSC, some years ago now.

If you can imagine the worst aspects of King Richard III and Iago combined, that will give some impression of this Roman general with his eyes on an emperor's laurel wreath.

Barry Stanton plays gullible Emperor Tiberius, the ruler of a Rome riven by factions following the death of Germanicus and, to continue the Shakespearean analogies, as willing to listen to his General as Othello was Iago.

Plots and counter plots abound and ultimately the supporters of Sejanus come into opposition with everybody else.

There are some pretty famous names waiting in the wings too with Agrippina's two sons Nero and Caligula destined for greatness not too far into the future.

Sadly, Tiberius' son, Matt Ryan's Drusus, is the first to challenge the eponymous commander of the Praetorian Guard with instantly fatal results. A man who is willing to kill the emperor's son will stop at nothing to attain power and the increasingly psychopathic Sejanus fits into that mould.

Eventually, madness overtakes him and, going beyond his ambition to become the most powerful mortal, he pathetically takes on the Gods in the statuesque form of Fortune.

On the other side supporting Agrippina and her family, is a team of the educated gentry, the most vocal of whom is the bitter and bileful but morbidly witty Arruntius, played by Nigel Cooke. He is always there with a backbiting remark and, unlike his three cohorts, survives not only the rise of the ambitious soldier but is there to see his inevitable downfall.

This takes place in a pivotal scene that is both exciting and ironic and undoubtedly the highlight of the play. As he finally ascends Caesar's throne, a message from the great man initially praises him but soon turns to condemnation and humiliation.

It is at this point that Sejanus finds out that his sycophantic friends care for him no more than he has the stream of people over whose bodies he has clambered to achieve his aims.

In a horrifying effort to persuade his audience that even the worst of men can deserve sympathy, Ben Jonson describes his beheading and then the way in which the mob rent the body limb from limb and distributes morsels like icons. If that were not enough, the rape and murder of his little children before the populace come to their senses should chasten the most bloodthirsty.

Sejanus suffers from some overly long speeches, often leavened at least by their verse form and some of the plotting can be hard to find a way through. Thanks to a powerful performance from William Houston (who on occasions brings to mind Sir Antony Sher) and his director Greg Doran, this revival gorily shows the embodiment of evil and, pleasingly, its failure to attain the highest goal.

Peter Lathan reviewed this production in the RSC Newcastle season

Reviewer: Philip Fisher