Gielgud, Shaftesbury Avenue. Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre series. Directed by Sean Holmes. Antony Sher as the Emperor Domitian
The terrible cruelties of the Roman Emperor Domitian continue and increase until at length the tables are turned and he is killed. That, in the simplest outline, is the plot of Massinger’s play, but so stark an outline fails to take into account the bold, thematic presence of the theatre itself in this play, as the title itself promises. The Roman actor of the title is an extremely talented player named Paris (played by a very talented member of the RSC company, Joe Dixon, who also did very well as Mendoza in last Wednesday night’s performance of The Malcontent). Domitian himself is a great lover of the theatre, and late in the play he even takes the role himself, as the avenging ruler who kills the lover of his paramour — only he does it with a real dagger, an early instance of a long series in which life imitates art. The play is in fact so flamboyantly theatrical that the action constantly presents life as art and art as life.
The play begins with a very long speech by Paris that would tax the limits of most actors but here sets the standard for competence and flair. And in the course of the play we see two or three more plays remarkable both for their brevity and their élan. Around these palpable markers Massinger constructs an action in which Domitian takes as his chief consort Domitia, wife of Lamia, a senator, who was forced to subscribe to a bill of divorce. So powerful is Domitia’s hold on Domitian that even when she seduces Paris and they are discovered in flagrante delicto he cannot bear to condemn him to death. Instead, he takes out his fury on Paris by dignifying his revenge in taking the avenging role mentioned above. Meanwhile, a plot to bring him down has formed, hastened by the prediction of a soothsayer that his end is near. Domitia survives, along with Domitian’s lesser ladies, long enough to join the conspiracy, though the conspirators are apprehended at the end — but not before we see Domitian killed by all of them.
Not deathless drama, and yet extremely competent writing. What brings these plays to happy life again is not the profound analogy they draw with life as we know it, but the verbal virtuosity that distinguishes the language of the script and goes far toward creating characters who also may lack any real depth but are nonetheless possible, well motivated personages who are caught up in the tremendous momentum of a viable plot line and who themselves contribute to its considerable vitality.
It is very interesting to see Antony Sher in two similar roles in the span of three nights. In the role of the malcontent and also that of the Roman emperor Sher finds two evidently congenial characters that elicit great forcefulness and spark. Two nights ago I was in a front row seat that gave opportunity to see the glint in his eye as he conducted his elaborate, yet elaborately ad hoc, plan for revenge and re-accession of his dukedom. Tonight I was in the fourth row of the dress circle, a good bit further away, and yet I had the same sense of his vital presence in his character. These RSC actors (I suppose Sher has joined the troupe for the duration of the run) have very well trained voices. They know how to vary the pace, find the keyword, or action word, in a line, introduce a slight pause as if for breath (though not really) in the middle of a verbalized thought, and meanwhile to ride the arc of meaning as it arches forward, even as they end with a crisp stop that is immediately countered by the next speaker, precisely on cue. It is a pleasure to see and hear this done so well; and Sher does it exceedingly well. Again, every word was crystal clear while at no moment calling attention to itself as a line in the script.
Of course, we are seeing five plays that have been honed and honed in a series of performances since last May, when they opened at the Swan in Stratford. And they have not gone stale in the meantime, but are as crisp and sharp and fully perfected as the most demanding audience can expect.
This particular play has an ending that is almost anticlimactic: we anticipate that the emperor will get his comeuppance, and when it comes it is done and over with in ten seconds. Massinger provides no sententious, moral-drawing speech over the body; a quick couplet, and the play is over. In this production, that final moment is elongated enough for a spotlight to pick up the dead body of the emperor, stage center, and to fade to darkness after the rest of the stage has faded out. To their credit, the director and actors played this straight, with no attempt to go beyond the script. And so we get the effect of a sad, sorry, pitiful man who for a while persuaded many others and himself that he was a god. Of such unpromising stuff Massinger made a remarkably good, viable play that took up the idea of the theatre, the theatrical, and virtuoso acting and gave some considerable life to what otherwise might have been as dry as dust. And we, four centuries later, are the current beneficiaries of his efforts. What a pleasure!