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Review: Company revive play in style; The Roman Actor The Swan Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

By rescuing little known plays from oblivion, the RSC is doing a fine job, and thus the Swan space is quickly becoming the place to find rare texts along with well-honed performances.

So far this season, it is Ben Jonson's Eastward Ho! a collaborative piece written with Marston and Chapman which has caught the public imagination.

Philip Massinger's The Roman Actor (1626) has not been much revived for almost 400 years and occasionally it is easy to see why.

The theme is the abdication of responsibility and reason in the Rome of the Caesars, and we might think that Massinger was reflecting the contemporary Stuart court. The Roman court is represented as a theatre of corruption and gratuitous violence where conscience is a disposable notion.

'When power puts in its plea, the laws are silenced,' says a character as a new monstrosity is enacted. It is a dangerous reflection if you think of the sensitive nature of Charles I's reign where imperial power could be highly destructive.

The sanctity of marriage is gleefully sidelined when the unstable Emperor Domitian (Antony Sher) fancies another man's wife (Anna Madeley).

Violence heaps on violence, as you might expect and worthy senators are tortured in front of us while Domitian, who has re-invented himself as a God, gloats over their sufferings and waits to see the exit of their souls but is disappointed.

Massinger sets all this as a play within a play thus redeeming himself from any accusation of gratuitous violence. The evening begins with a group of Roman actors (the inference is they are the playing company known as The Kings Men) lamenting the decline of stage licence (nicely topical). Their satires have made them certain enemies amongst the ruling faction and they risk closure.

The actor, Paris (a powerful performance by Joe Dixon) defends his profession but he is bedevilled when the Emperor's latest wife demands sexual favours and so he's doomed.

The evening concludes with a cunning play within the play when Paris is stabbed for real by an outraged Emperor turned actor. But under Sean Holmes' consistently inventive direction little can be developed - Massinger's not Holmes' fault. These are caricatures and require broad playing.

Sher's is the star turn as the shaven-headed Domitian. A performance more calculated than compelling or ingenious, but extremely funny on many occasions. And always tremendous value.

Yet since we have Sher this season - one of the best of our modern actors how much better to have used him in something worthwhile.

Elsewhere, you have lots of well trained actors shouting angrily at each other doing their best meanwhile to bring a stubborn text to life.

But there are great compensations here since Adrian Lee's music is marvellous. The play is finally worth seeing as a rarely performed novelty piece.

Running time: 2hrs For a season


Anna Madeley and Joe Dixon turn on the passion in The Roman Actor
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 3, 2002
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