A man fuelled by ambition and loved by the fickle, fawning masses, works his way to the top of his chosen profession only to have a character flaw exposed and find his star falling faster than he could have possibly imagined. Sounds like last week’s hottest celebrity, but it is actually the tale of Sejanus, Commander of the Praetorian Guard and adviser to Tiberius, Emperor of Rome. Matthew Amer attended the first night of the RSC’s production of Ben Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall at Trafalgar Studio 1.
Sejanus is undoubtedly mad. It’s the eyes that give it away, staring maniacally as he expounds on his theories of how he will get to the top. He is crazy with ambition. I say crazy, because, to get to where he wants to be, he has to see off the current Emperor and the three men who would most likely beat him to the succession. Mad as a hatter.
Yet those around him don’t spot it. Those with whom he has surrounded himself hang on his every word, wait to fulfil his every wish and generally try to put themselves as close to him as possible so that they may be held in the great man’s favour. And who wouldn’t, while almost everyone else on stage is dressed in the drabbest of togas, Sejanus sports a glorious red and gold uniform that screams power. The only other person to wear such garb is his second in command Macro, a man charged with the job of keeping an eye on Sejanus once his twisted ways have been spotted by Tiberius; a man worth keeping an eye on himself.
Sejanus, to some degree, is nothing more than a politician; he takes a few more liberties to get what he wants than today’s politicians might, but essentially he knows how to work the people. A little flattery here, a warm handshake there, sleep with a wife to get her husband murdered, sleep with a eunuch to get him to do the murdering, that kind of thing.
William Houston plays the arch-manipulator as power mad, but also as one who truly believes in his right to rule the world. When a statue of Fortune actually moves to turn her face away from the Praetorian, Sejanus is convinced it is because she does not see herself as fit to stand in his gaze.
The real wonder of Sejanus is that, for a play set in ancient Rome – pillars dominate the stage, while the will of the gods lays heavily on everyone’s minds – and written in the 17th century, it is remarkably contemporary in its themes. The senate of Rome is rife with corruption; the effect that power has upon its members. The people of Rome are quick to support an idol at the top, but even quicker to pull him down and raise another in his place. Has the world moved on at all?
We don’t physically tear our celebrities limb from limb these days after their tumble from grace. Nor do we hunt out their children to exact the same revenge upon them. Who is the real tragic anti-hero of Sejanus, the eponymous ambitious guard or the people he wants to rule over?
Sejanus: His Fall is playing at Trafalgar Studio 1 until 28 January.