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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Gunpowder Season

*A New Way to Please You | *Sejanus: His Fall | *Believe What You Will|*Speaking Like Magpies| *Thomas More Editor's Note: An * asterisk will be aded to each title as reviews of the Gunpowder plays are posted.

A New Way to Please You

To be taught that difficult lesson, how to learn to die.
---- Lysander
Members of the Company
(Photo: Stephen Vaughan)
About the Gunpowder Season: The Royal Shakespeare Company brings five plays from its Gunpowder Season at the Swan in Stratford Upon Avon to London's Trafalgar Studios for the winter. Four of the rare plays are contemporary with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and one is a new play about that Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament from Frank McGuinness. All have political significance, then and now. They mark the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.

The first is a modern production of an old Jacobean play with a disturbing theme, A New Way To Please You was originally the subtitle for a play called The Old Law. It is about a Duke who, advised by lawyers, decides that men when they reach 80 years of age and women, 60, should be put to death as they have outlived their usefulness to society. The plays censures the greedy youth and grasping younger wives who are queuing up to despatch their fathers and husbands and shows that, in adversity, loyal sons will hide the aged relative to avoid the law. Callow youths line up to marry rich fifty-nine year old women so that they may inherit shortly.

The whole is played in modern dress so that the three youths who lead the movement are punks, the venues are discos with raucous music. In one scene an eighty year old man Lysander (James Hayes) dresses in a yellow jump suit and in a contest for a young wife beats his youthful challenger, Simonides (Jonjo O'Neill) in both the drinking and dancing contests. It is played as a comedy rather than the tragicomedy referred to in the programme but there are moments which are chilling when faced with the arrogance of punk youth. Cleanthus (Matt Ryan) is the heroic son who defends and hides his father and has many of the play's high moments. Overall there is an energy from the ensemble cast which may please a youthful audience (the 16 to 25 year olds can get a seat for £5). The twenty first century music modern dance at the end parodies the end of play period dance from the practitioners at Shakespeare's Globe. In a world where plastic surgeons coin it as men and women try to look younger than their years, and where rich old men marry young girls, A New Way to Please You has an alarming resonance.

Written by Thomas Middleton and Philip Rowley
Directed by Sean Holmes

With: Jonjo O'Neill, Keith Osborn, Nigel Betts, Matt Ryan, Geoffrey Freshwater, Teresa Banham, Evelyn Duah, Barry Stanton, Peter de Jersey, David Hinton, Jon Foster, Julian Stolzenberg, Keith Osborn, Mark Springer, Fred Ridgeway, Vinette Robinson, Miranda Colchester, James Hayes, Ishia Bennison, Michelle Butterly, Pascal Wyse, Tom Haines, Chris Branch
Design: Kandis Cook
Lighting: Wayne Dowdeswell
Music Sound: Chris Branch and Tom Haines
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking to 31st December 2005
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd December performance at the Trafalgar Studios One, Whitehall, London SW1 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
Believe What You Will

You must not see the sun if, in the policy of the state, it is forbidden.
---- Antiochus
Peter de Jersey as Antiochus and William Houston as Titus Flaminius
Peter de Jersey as Antiochus and William Houston as Titus Flaminius
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Fourth and most compelling in the RSC's Gunpowder season, plays written during the conflicted times of the Guy Fawkes conspiracy, Philip Massinger's manuscript was only granted a performing licence by the censors in 1631 after he painstakingly rewrote it, setting the plot more comfortably in the 2nd century BC. But although the action takes place in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire it still carried a powerful political resonance - perhaps even more so today.

King Antiochus of Lower Asia (played with impassioned energy by Peter de Jersey), was defeated in battle and believed dead. At the start of the play he has spent months or years in hiding, seeking refuge from friendly powers. Now at last he returns to Carthage in beggar's rags to reclaim his kinghood. No-one, friend or foe, for a moment doubts Antiochus's credentials. But he is hounded by Rome, a superpower government determined to discredit him. And when a friendly, accommodating king submits to Roman realpolitik Antiochus is seized, named an impostor and put in shackles for fear that his presence could ignite discontent in the Asian provinces and harm the profitable Mediterranean trade. His chief tormentor is a Roman envoy Titus Flaminius, in William Houston's chilling performance a smiling villain dressed in diplomatic guise, who justifies coercion, torture and cruel punishments on the grounds of necessity of state. Among his victims is Barry Stanton's Berecinthus, a defrocked priest of splendidly Falstaffian proportions with a pithy turn of phrase, who after teasing his Roman captors, eventually finds his great bulk stretching his neck on the scaffold.

Josie Rourke's production is played on the RSC season's apron stage, a timbered expanse flanked by brick enclosures to conceal the source of lighting effects. The stage is otherwise bare and the director uses virtually no design details beyond the costumes: Jacobean for the Romans, timeless togs and skullcaps for the Asians. After years of brutal power politics Flaminius's comeuppance arrives with a brilliant coup de theatre, when Nigel Cooke as Marcellus, a senior Roman politician, orders his staff to bring out his entire collection of swords, to be placed in geometric groupings across the floor until they virtually cover the entire playing area. The idea is that Antiochus, still dubbed a fraud by the increasingly manic Flaminius, can pick out the sword that he long ago gave Marcellus as a gift of friendship, and thus at last prove his true, kingly identity. Only the RSC would have a backstage armoury capable of delivering this closing masterstroke, with its sounds of ringing cold steel, which perhaps could explain why this is the first revival of Massinger's enthralling play since 1631.

Written by Philip Massinger
Directed by Josie Rourke

Starring William Houston, Peter de Jersey
With: Mark Springer, Nigel Cooke, Ian Drysdale, Jonjo O'Neill, Peter Bramhill, Barry Stanton, Kevin Harvey, Barry Aird, Ewen Cummins, Matt Ryan, Julian Stolzenberg, David Hinton, Tim Treloar, Fred Ridgeway, Evelyn Duah, Michelle Butterly and Teresa Banham
Design: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting: Wayne Dowdeswell
Music: Mick Sands
Sound: Andy Franks
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking to 11th February 2006

Reviewed by John Thaxter based on the 1st February 2006 at Trafalgar Studios One, Whitehall, London SW1 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
Thomas More

My lord, for to deny my sovereign's bounty/ Were to drop precious stones into the heaps /Whence they first came; To urge my imperfections in excuse, /Were all as stale as custom: no, my lord, /My service is my king's; good reason why,/ Since life or death hangs on our sovereign's eye.
---- Thomas More
Nigel Cooke as Sir Thomas More
(Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
The manuscript of Thomas More survives in twenty-two pages in which the handwriting of five anonymous playwrights have been identified. So Martin White tells us in the RSC programme and he expounds that such collaborations were not uncommon. The original play, recording some of the events in the life of Thomas More who was executed in 1535, was completed around 1592 by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. Hand D has been identified by scholars as Shakespeare's. The play drew the attention of the censor, not as you might expect for its implied criticism of the monarch but for the content about riots against foreigners which was seen as a danger. There is no evidence that Thomas Morewas staged in Elizabethan or Jacobean times.

The play which opens with More's enlightened handling of riots against foreign nationals has a middle interval of More in high office entertaining dignitaries to a play within a play, The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom. But the final thrust of the play concerns More's arrest, imprisonment and journey to the scaffold. It is a little like speed history as the events of 18 years are condensed.

The riot scenes are very well staged and played and, with the play in modern dress, their xenophobic origins strike a contemporary note. The play has wonderful music and is strong on atmosphere. The final scenes too work well as More resists the pressure to conform and pays with his life and the financial security of his family. Nigel Cooke holds the stage as More and convinces eloquently and his highpoint is the quelling of the riot, his speech pleading for common decency towards others:

"Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires . . . "

The main interest for many of the audience is in spotting those lines which Shakespeare might have had a hand in and the Royal Shakespeare Company must be congratulated for staging this rare piece so successfully. For another take on Sir Thomas More see the revival of Robert Bolt's 1966 play at the Haymarket.

Written by Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare and others
Directed by Robert Delamere

Starring Nigel Cooke
With: Keith Osborn, Nigel Betts, Geoffrey Freshwater, Teresa Banham, Evelyn Duah, David Hinton, Jon Foster, Julian Stolzenberg, Mark Springer, Fred Ridgeway, Vinette Robinson, Miranda Colchester, James Hayes, Michelle Butterly, Kevin Harvey, Barry Aird, Ian Drysdale, Ewen Cummins, Peter Bramhill, Tim Treloar, Michael Jenn
Design: Simon Higlett
Season Stage designed by Robert Jones
Lighting: Wayne Dowdeswell
Music: Ilona Sekacz
Sound: Mike Compton
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking to 14th January 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th January 2006 performance at the Trafalgar Studios One, Whitehall, London SW1 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)


I will commit a race of wicked acts… Though heaven drop sulphur, and hell belch out fire, …Tell proud Jove, Between his power and thine there is no odds: 'Twas only fear first in the world made gods!
---- Sejanus
William Houston as Sejanus
(Photo: Stewart Hemley)
Ben Jonson's Sejanus is a play written 400 years ago about events which took place some 2000 years before today. However, as the RSC's production demonstrates, this is no esoteric oddity but rather a dark, gripping thriller with resounding significance for today's society.

The play opens just after the death of Germanicus, the darling of Rome and the bane of the unpopular Emperor Tiberius (Barry Stanton). Amid the political upheaval, Tiberius relies increasingly on the lowly-born but voraciously and deviously ambitious Sejanus (William Houston), the prefect of the praetorian guard. Sejanus manipulates Tiberius' anxiety over Germanicus' surviving family so that they are effectively doomed. He also insidiously attacks Tiberius' son Drusus (Matt Ryan), turning his own household against him by seducing his wife Livia (Miranda Colchester) and servant boy Lygdus (Peter Bramhill). However, Sejanus' plan to become Tiberius' heir triggers the mistrustful emperor's suspicions. Tiberius creates a substitute for Sejanus in the figure of the chillingly impassive Macro (Peter De Jersey). It is not long before Sejanus becomes a victim of the ruthless world he had personified. Senators, meanwhile, are split between the honourable and therefore short-lived, or the capriciously sycophantic self-seekers who thrive.

William Houston's central performance as the Machiavellian Sejanus is what really makes this production so powerful. Breathtakingly compelling. His villain is the most charismatic and intelligent character onstage and inspires fascination as much as terror. His reptilian gluttony for power suggests how singularly easy it is for the unscrupulous to destroy the honest. As he executes his extensive, intricate and intrepid schemes with ease, Houston plays an exultant Sejanus who positively flourishes in the midst of deception and intrigue. Similar to Iago, his monologues draw the audience into an uneasy complicity, while his piercing, all-inclusive eye contact makes him seem as if he is scrutinizing even the auditorium for threats or opportunities.

The rest of the characters have a vivid individuality. Barry Stanton's Emperor Tiberius is circumspect, decadent and capable of any measures to keep his reviled reign secure. Miranda Colchester's unfaithful Livia is vain and frivolous amid murderous plans. The honest, disgruntled Romans like Geoffrey Freshwater's Silius or Nigel Cooke's Arruntius combine their stifled moral outrage with powerlessness. I also liked Jon Foster's portrayal of Caligula, clearly establishing the future emperor's monstrosity as Tiberius' corrupting power.

At two hours and fifty minutes this play is not exactly lightweight. Instead, it is a meaty and satisfying portrayal of a society in a state of irreversible decay, with sinister power games, unprincipled ambition and violent deeds. The only drawback is the shortness of Sejanus: His Fall's run!

Written by Ben Jonson
Directed by Gregory Doran

Starring William Houston
With: Nigel Cooke, Barry Stanton, Matt Ryan, Miranda Colchester, Nigel Betts, Peter Bramhill, Ishia Bennison, Jonjo O'Neill, Jon Foster, Vinette Robinson, Geoffrey Freshwater, James Hayes, Keith Osborn, Peter De Jersey, Barry Aird, Ewen Cummins, Kevin Harvey, Ian Drysdale, Michael Jenn, Tim Treloar
Design: Robert Jones
Lighting: Wayne Dowdeswell
Music: Paul Englishby
Sound: Martin Slavin
Running time: Two hours fifty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking to 28th January 2006
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 18th January 2006 performance at the Trafalgar Studios One, Whitehall, London SW1 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
Speaking Like Magpies

You know the ending. The King is not killed and the plotters are captured
---- The Equivocator
Peter Bramhill as Dog
(Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
Frank McGuinness' Speaking Like Magpies was first produced last year to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. The London transfer proves that the play needs no such excuse to be a captivating and absorbing evening.

Instead of a straightforward historical narrative, McGuinness' exploration of the seventeenth century plot is imaginative and has elements of the surreal. For example, there is a central figure of The Equivocator (Kevin Harvey). Dressed as a satyr, he has cloven hooves, horns and pointed ears. He is a tempter and a taunter, enjoys omniscience and can appear to whoever he wishes.

King James I (William Houston) is an enigmatic figure, haunted by his Catholic mother's persecution at Protestant hands, but not merciful towards the Catholic traitors. He might enjoy mortal sovereignty but none of his subjects can save him from the fear of his inevitable death. The excellent William Houston brings out the full ambiguity of the part without sacrificing the interest he inspires.

There are a host of other vivid characters: James' unloved Queen (Michelle Butterly), the dashing, intense conspirator Catesby (Jonjo O'Neill) and his friend who mirrors his every move (Matt Ryan). There is also the Spymaster Robert Cecil, who wears period dress made completely out of black leather (Nigel Cooke), Henry Garnet, the Catholic priest in hiding who unwillingly hears of the murderous plan (Fred Ridgeway), and May the young, innocent servant who is literally obliterated by the momentous events (Vinette Robinson).

With so large and varied an ensemble, the play's cohesion might seem a little lacking, but the character threads are brought together for a satisfying ending. As usual, Frank McGuinness' writing is exuberant and adds great pace to a deeply-textured, weighty subject. He does not pursue parallels with modern, religiously-motivated terrorism, but the play is rather a more timeless portrayal of humanity. Moreover, there are some fantastic, almost witty, pyrotechnic effects. This production is a superior, if somewhat bizarre, conclusion to the RSC's successful Gunpowder season.

Written by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Rupert Goold

Starring William Houston
With: Nigel Cooke, Kevin Harvey, Teresa Banham, Vinette Robinson, Miranda Colchester, Jon Foster, Keith Osborn, Julian Stolzenberg, Peter Bramhill, Fred Ridgeway, Ishia Bennison, Barry Aird
Design: Matthew Wright
Lighting: Wayne Dowdeswell
Music and Sound Score: Adam Cork
Music Director: Michael Tubbs
Running time: Two hours twenty-five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking to 25th February 2006
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 15th February 2006 performance at the Trafalgar Studios One, Whitehall, London SW1 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
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