The play has a clear-eyed interest in how the corrupt cling on to power. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Jonson's sharp analysis of despotism got him into trouble with authority. He was summoned before the Privy Council and accused of "popery and treason" - a charge that gives the piece pride of place in the RSC's Gunpowder Season.
The mood of Sejanus is often closer to satire than to tragedy, as is brought home by Greg Doran's excellent revival. Beyond appalled fascination, we have no real emotional engagement with the title character, the right-hand-man and favourite of the Emperor. With a psychotic gleam in his eye, the muscle-bound, pony-tailed William Houston is mesmerising in the role. Power for him is a flagrant turn-on (at one point we see him sodomising a servant and achieving a sexual and rhetorical climax at the same time). As he eliminates rivals and clears his path to the top, he becomes ecstatic at his own success.
We wait for this anti-hero to overreach himself and we relish Tiberius's blackly comic method of outwitting him. Barry Stanton is superb as the Emperor - a supreme political operator posing as a martyr to his own modesty. There's a scathing jokey justice to the way this ruler, who uses men like Sejanus to do his dirty work for him, continues to keep his distance by not even bothering to show up for his former favourite's downfall.
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