The Roman Actor

Philip Massinger
RSC at the Gielgud
(2002)

The title of this play may be The Roman Actor, but in this production by associate director of Oxford Stage, Sean Holmes, it might more accurately be entitled "The Evil Roman Emperor". The Emperor Domitian is the kind of man who keeps a little black book on a chain around his neck to note down the names of the subjects whom he wishes to send instantly to their deaths. There is a suspicion that he might have needed a very big book to keep up with his manic, murderous whims.

Sir Anthony Sher has great fun playing Domitian, a man who will have his way in all regards except when he attempts to beat the Gods, largely on the basis that he believes that he is one of them. With white face and wild eyes, Sir Anthony looks like nothing so much as the famous image of Klaus Kinski as Mephisto. With the assistance of Michael Ashcroft's music and Wayne Dowdeswell's often-sinister lighting he makes a fine devil.

The play gets off to a racy start with a sword fight and a death in the first ten seconds. We soon discover that all is not well in the state of Rome and that many of his senators would wish the demonic Domitian dead.

One of these is Lamia, a good and loyal man who will happily support his emperor in most things but is unwilling to give up his beautiful wife, Domitia (played by Anna Madeley), to become the Emperor's fourth Concubine. The other three are none too happy about this either. Domitia, to give her credit soon takes to the opportunity to exercise power with unabashed enthusiasm.

While all of this is taking place, a group of actors led by the muscular, handsome Paris, played very well by Joe Dixon, is summoned before the Senate to defend itself against accusations of treason. This allows Paris to give a great and meaningful speech about the nature of acting and drama. While this is successful, the actors' next invitation is to visit the Emperor himself to perform.

In true melodramatic style, Domitia, who has already been unfaithful to her husband, takes a fancy to the reluctant leading actor. They are discovered in flagrante by the Emperor whose madness becomes even more pronounced.

Thousands of years before feminism became popular, it is gratifying to report that Domitian's equivalent to Julius Caesar's Brutus and assistants are his four concubines, of whom Amanda Drew as Domitilla gives a particularly gritty and vengeful performance.

This play may not have great depth but it is often great fun and does contain some very interesting speeches about acting and theatre. It also allows one of the few current Knights of the stage numerous opportunities for comedy and rage which will please his many fans.

The Roman Actor plays at the Gielgud until 24th January.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher