Nonetheless, he was summoned before the Privy Council on charges of sedition and popery regarding this work, perhaps precisely because it depicts a virtual police state and unjust accusations of treason. From today's perspective, many other parallels leap out too, especially with Nazi Germany and the USSR. Tiberius' tyrannised citizens are prepared to inform against their own families, show trials are orchestrated, and some sinister slaughterhouse has, we glean, been set up out of town.
Gregory Doran's production, performed in rough hessian togas, does not strain to underline any modern relevance, nor does it need to because this proves (with some cuts) to be a gripping, essentially timeless drama about power-crazed political machinations and corruption. In many ways, Sejanus is a fascinating prequel to Camus' Caligula (recently aired at the Donmar), with that future emperor being glimpsed in this play as an innocent youth slipping into lascivious vice. You can also see the direct link - though in a very different mode - between this and Jonson's savagely dark comedies as Sejanus' seduced partner in crime, Livia, cakes make-up over her rotten complexion, and as a surviving clutch of honourable Romans fume at the palace flatterers who are "ready to praise/ His lordship if he spit or but piss fair,/ Have an indifferent stool, or break wind well."
There are loose ends, not least Livia dropping out of sight. Jonson's last-minute attempt to turn the villain's death, at the hands of the mob, into a cause for grief is jolting. Sejanus isn't as poetically soaring as Marlowe's comparable over-reachers either. Yet it's an enthralling and superbly directed evening, played out against simple sandstone columns and ornate iron grilles (designed by Robert Jones).
Barry Stanton's Tiberius, with a bulbous, pustulating face, is horribly sleazy, seemingly weak and fey but secretly razor-sharp. As for Sejanus himself, William Houston (pictured left, with Miranda Colchester) is chilling and electrifyingly psychotic - like a jackal with the beady eyes of a snake. Recommended.
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