Part of the RSC's season of neglected plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries, The Roman Actor is a tragicomic exploration of the abuse of power, the power of sex and the function of theatre. Written by Philip Massinger in 1626, it charts the toppling of the despotic, drama-loving emperor Domitian Caesar, whose obsession with the beautiful Domitia leads to his downfall and eventually his death.
At the start of the play, Antony Sher's wild-eyed Caesar returns victorious from the wars and chooses the married Domitia as his new empress. Delighted by her rise in status and particularly by the displacement of Caesar's three prior princesses, Domitia (the spirited Anna Madeley) commands the court in a transparent-fronted dress, her black underwear giving her an ill-judged modernity. Caesar is in thrall to this calculating child-woman, but Domitia's affections are elsewhere, as she herself falls prey to an obsessive lust for Paris, Caesar's favourite actor, played with integrity by Joe Dixon.
On Anthony Lamble's spare and brooding set, the play begins (and ends) with the ominous sound of a buzzing fly. The small orchestra, visible in the wings, sends out shivers of jangling, almost oriental music, and their presence on-stage means that the actors mostly enter and exit through the auditorium, with centurions silently replacing front-of-house staff in the stalls. Caesar, however, makes his first entrance atop a huge dark red tower, a potent symbol of his assumed invincibility.
The play has modern resonance in its evocation of an uncertain world, a climate of fear and a lack of democracy; but Sher's pale, paranoid Caesar is more Dr Evil than Prime Minister Blair. In his dependence on the goddess Minerva, his helpless lust for Domitia and his palpable fear of mortality, he is vulnerable even at his most tyrannous, and his self-destruction seems inevitable. Sher is compelling if heavily theatrical, with one eye always on the audience. The architects of Caesar's downfall - the three rejected princesses, and Paris, whose speech in defence of the theatrical profession is a high point in the play - are more interesting than the man they bring down.
As a result, the structure of the play works against it. The action only grips towards the end of Act 1, when Paris and his company are commanded to enact a drama for Caesar and Domitia. Here, Sher and Madeley are at their most convincing, ceaselessly caressing and rearranging their bodies to accommodate each other with all the irritating skittishness of new lovers, while the impeccably portrayed princesses sit seething with resentment at their feet. But Domitia's real desire is for Paris, and the act closes with a gratifying tension.
In Act 2, however, the important events are played out in rapid sequence, with no suspense, no delaying or withholding of information and no psychological development. Unlike Othello, which shares the themes of jealousy and desire, the play does not allow for dramatic seeds to be planted and to grow. Instead, the revelations come thick and fast as the princesses betray Domitia to Caesar, who witnesses her seduction of Paris and immediately confronts them. Caesar then instructs the actors to perform a drama in which he himself plays a cuckolded husband, and within this role he kills Paris. The dramatic arc of the play comes to a climax long before the end of the evening.
After the death of Paris, the story loses momentum. Caesar's inevitable decline unfolds, but the audience's engagement with the story seems to wane, which produces the feeling of a drawn-out epilogue. Domitia delivers a gutsy riposte to Caesar's forgiveness, rejecting him outright, and a soothsayer predicts his imminent death. Half-crazed by fear and confusion, even his beloved Minerva seeming to abandon him, Caesar is finally a ripe target for the princesses together with his freeman Parthenius (Antony Bryne) to take their revenge.
The Roman Actor is a solid piece of work, thoughtfully directed by Sean Holmes and worth reviving, but don't expect to leave the theatre feeling changed by the experience. There is little scope for emotional involvement and the philosophical points are somehow lost in the sonorous theatricality of the production. The Roman Actor makes for an intelligent, but slightly stodgy, evening.
The Roman Actor is at the Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (0870 890 1105) until 24 January
Sheridan Morley will return in February