Philip Massinger’s Believe What You Will was originally written about Sebastian, King of Portugal. When the censor decreed the subject too sensitive to be broached, Massinger shifted the setting and characters to Rome, where defeated King Antiochus seemingly returns from the dead, a resurrection which does not sit well with Rome’s ambassador to Carthage, Titus Flaminius. Matthew Amer joined the first night audience at Trafalgar Studio 1…
A muslin cloth hangs over the front of the stage, holey and slightly tattered. In front stands a man dressed in a sharp pin-striped suit, there to deliver the prologue. This is no modern dress production, but his 21st-century garb does suggest that there may be something of the modern about it.
I probably don’t need to point it out, but a tale of a superpower threatening all manner of sanctions or war, or suggesting aid in recompense for a little help, may hold more than a little relevance in today’s world, even if it was written in the 17th century. This RSC production refuses to hold your hand and help you through it, but the association is not hard to make.
Antiochus, played with unbreakable nobility by Peter De Jersey, is a Middle Eastern king who, for two decades, has been presumed dead. Over that time the super power of Rome has swept through the continent, taxing the Asian provinces heavily to fund their progress. With Antiochus’s return, there is a fear that he could spearhead a revolution or at least give weaker nations a reason to stand up to Rome. This is the event that Titus Flaminius, servant to the system, must stop.
The problem with Flaminius is that he takes things a little too far. He has such a belief in the need to keep the system safe that he will stop at nothing to ensure it. The killing of messengers who know too much is but a trifle, the hanging of Antiochus’s companion Berecinthius – played as a sweaty, Falstaffian Friar Tuck by Barry Stanton – is a happy side effect. He is evil, though also quick witted with his put-downs and asides in the manner of a scheming Bond villain. William Houston portrays him as an arch-politician, always ready with a smile which, when it stretches that little bit too far, moves from friendly to gleefully vicious.
It is in how the other Asian dignitaries react to the situation that we see the real effects of power. While many may have been cheered by the news that a great leader had returned, bringing hope to Asia, few will harbour him when the fugitive-hunting Flaminius comes knocking.
Believe What You Will is playing at the Trafalgar Studio 1 until 11 February.