Believe What You Will, Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Tuesday 31 May 2005
The Royal Shakespeare Company's admirable Gunpowder Season throws up another politically charged piece, glinting with implicit contemporary application, in the shape of Josie Rourke's powerful and atmospheric staging of Philip Massinger's 1631 play Believe What You Will.
The focus is on Antiochus, a Middle Eastern ruler who has been missing for 22 years, presumed to have died in a disastrous battle that nearly wiped out his army. In the meantime, Rome has become the world superpower. Antiochus's re-emergence from hiding poses a threat. Though they now fund Rome's growing empire, the resentful Asian provinces have not forgotten their own former glory. So to prevent him from becoming a rallying point for unrest, Rome will have to do everything it can to discredit Antiochus.
While it's hard to imagine George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld making a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon -Avon, it's all too easy to imagine that, if they found themselves at a performance of Believe What You Will, they would be inwardly cheering on the character, Flaminius (played here by a glaring, messianic William Houston). He's the Roman ambassador who justifies dirty tricks against Antiochus on the grounds of "necessity of state", a term as self-servingly commodious as "national security".
Apart from one amateur production at a university, this play has not been revived since its original run. Massinger's first version, in which Spain was the might-is-right villain, ran foul of the censor. For the RSC, the difficulties are textual.
The play has survived in a physically damaged authorial manuscript, with missing bits at vital points near the beginning and the end. In the event, the company commissioned the poet and playwright, Ian McHugh, to cover the hiatuses with pastiche verse and to patch up the plot with informed guesses. The result is largely a success. McHugh's interpolations heighten the sense that Flaminius's Roman zeal is carrying him to an excess of perfidy that will eventually prove his undoing.
In a production full of simply but sensuously evoked locations, Peter de Jersey brings just the right kind of experience-scarred charisma to the central role. The emphasis is thrown on how only exceptional courage and virtue can resist the corrupting force of a superpower
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