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Believe What You Will

Philip Massinger
Royal Shakespeare Company
Trafalgar Studios 1
(2006)

Production photo

The final production in the RSC's Gunpowder Season of unknown plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries bears more than a passing resemblance to Pericles. Rather than an exiled Prince of Tyre, this 1631 play features Antiochus, King of Lower Asia.

The story is apparently based on the life (and possible afterlife) of the Portuguese King Sebastian. After King Philip of Spain occupied the territories previously ruled by the late King, a number of supposed Sebastians appeared much to the discomfort of the Spaniards.

In Believe What You Will, after 22 years of exile, Peter de Jersey's shaggy-maned royal returns to his home country of Carthage to take up his birthright. He was not wholly loved by his own countrymen having lost 12,000 men in battle prior to his own apparent demise.

Unfortunately for him, the occupying Roman force, led by a cruel ambassador, Titus Flaminius (William Houston) has other ideas, declaring the wanderer an impostor.

The play then follows the mental battle between these two men as it rages from country to country, Antiochus' position varying depending on his hosts' abilities to withstand the pressure exerted by Titus Flaminius.

The plotting has a tendency towards the melodramatic following a very wordy opening, only lightened by Barry (the Barrel) Stanton playing a very Falstaffian Flamen.

Peter de Jersey gives a mighty performance as the unhappy King, at his best when raging at injustice and suffering. He makes a great contrast with his wily Roman opressor. Whether Titus Flaminius is driven by a real belief that the claimant is an impostor or just a passion to retain his own power is not entirely clear.

Either way, when the just pairing of Marcellus of Syracuse and his wife (Nigel Cooke and Teresa Banham) finally release Antiochus and condemn the Roman, the ending is unusually dark. It is a pity that the plot strands then introduced are not further explored.

Believe What You Will has its moments, especially as things get really bad for Antiochus, but may continue to want for regular appearances in the classical repertoire.

Playing until 11th February

Peter Lathan reviewed this production at the People's Theatre, Newcastle

Reviewer: Philip Fisher