BELIEVE WHAT YOU WILL
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Opened 26 May, 2005
***

A Middle Eastern ruler is captured by the global superpower, deliberately discredited and put in shackles. His supporters are either eliminated or suborned. It is a matter both of political imperium and of international commercial imperatives. Sound topical? Philip Massinger wrote his play in 1631 and (although it originally referred to events in Spain and Portugal 50-odd years earlier) set it in the eastern part of the Roman empire: the protagonist is Antiochus, former king of lower Asia, trying after 22 years' disappearance to confirm his identity in the face of Rome's decision that it would be more convenient if he turned out to be just another pretender.

Massinger's writing is not excessively dense, but it is fairly profuse as I heard one audience member describe it during the interval, "a torrent of language". As such, it takes a while to grow accustomed to his style. It's unfortunate that this tuning-in takes place during an opening scene which is not just packed with the mandatory slabs of exposition, but is also one of two places (the other being the end of the play!) in which the script as it survives is missing a number of lines, and so some discreet bridging material has been provided by Ian McHugh.

Peter de Jersey has the uprightness of bearing and, especially, resonance of voice to establish that Antiochus' true regal identity is never in doubt as a point of fact, only as a matter of realpolitik. As his Roman persecutor, William Houston makes an excellent smiling villain except when he seems pointedly to introduce Americanisms into his pronunciation; Josie Rourke's production otherwise steers scrupulously clear of belabouring the analogies. Barry Stanton shines in a supporting role as a corpulent priest, a sort of pontifical Falstaff, vastly padded but implausibly light on his feet, as if he ought to have "GOODYEAR" written along his side.

Believe As You List (its altered title in this production acknowledges the adaptations made to the text) plays as part of the RSC's "Gunpowder" season, celebrating the quatercentenary of Guy Fawkes et al. by staging a number of 17th-century pieces which sailed close to the political wind of the period. This one still does, set in a too-familiar world where "You must not see/The sun if, in the policy of state,/It is forbidden."

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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