If you've been mourning the death of the HBO/BBC series Rome, and regretting the end of Hollywood's love affair with the ancients since Troy failed to inspire, Sejanus should provide a nice theatrical refresher.
The theatre-shy among you will note that you can get political wrangling, squabbling over honour, being true to oneself, and the taking and swapping of sides by staying in and watching Celebrity Big Brother. However, if you love all the above, but feel there's something missing unless a venerable group of old blokes in voluminous white togas clutch their noble bald spots and cry for Rome, help is at hand.
Ben Jonson's play follows the rise and fall of Emperor Tiberius' eponymous second-in-command. During Tiberius' reign, Rome is politically divided, with supporters of the emperor and Sejanus on one side, and the republicans, loyal to the late Germanicus, on the other.
Manic ambition drives Sejanus to plot the murder of Emperor Tiberius' son, Drusus, and seduce Drusus’ widow, in an attempt to make himself the Emperor's new son-in-law, and then wheedle his way into becoming his heir. To the horror of the republicans, Tiberius can't get enough. He puts up a statue to Sejanus, and the hero goes on to receive even greater flatteries from fawning senators.
However, as time goes on and Sejanus continues to persecute his enemies, gossip, rumours and lies start to fill the court. Tiberius begins to wake up to his second-in-commands' overbearing ambition, and sends a spy, Macro, to watch his deputy. As the politics twist and turn, Sejanus' fall becomes inevitable. But even with his downfall, Rome remains uneasy – as the vacillating public that had prevoiusly worshipped Sejanus begin torture his dead body, no-one's left feeling particularly good about themselves.
I don't know if it's just us, the mood we were in, or the pervading feeling that Sleb BB obsession is taking over the nation, but the parallels between the play and the 'real' life drama we were lucky enough to be missing on Ch4 seemed to seep out of every pore of the piece.
Here’s Silius, an old, battle-scarred General, superbly played by Geoffrey Freshwater, reminding me of a ranting a Barrymore figure. Falsely accused of treason, Silius shouts and raves about his previous greatness, not heeding his own warnings over playing the power game, and is finally driven to the ultimate eviction, suicide, by a lack of support in the house, sorry, senate.
Then there's Sabinus, a noble old patrician, just like gorgeous George, caught out slagging off the Emperor in a quiet spot in the garden, and being dragged down for treason. Arruntius gives Maggot a run for his money, hanging out quietly in the back, moaning to those he can trust, surviving by generally keeping his head down.
Suddenly, all the honest, revelatory soliloquies took on the appearance of Diary Room ramblings, and as the fickle masses suddenly switch allegiances in the finale, destroying the guy they’d previously rooted for, the image seems complete.
Which perhaps unfairly, leads us to compare Sejanus to Mr Pete Burns.
The tragic hero certainly likes to wear his tunic short and his hair long, and isn't afraid to do whatever/whoever it takes to get his own way. (Thinking about taking your Great Aunt? Be warned, there's a graphic, all-male sex scene quite early on, and an elderly couple on our row failed to return after the interval). William Houston tackles the lead with gusto, and a mania which left this Londonista slightly cold - it's not entirely clear why he's so obsessed with attaining this power, so I suppose his motivations seems as incomprehensible those of the fat-lipped one from BB.
But all these comparisons do the play a bit of a disservice. The RSC has put together a slick, fierce, well-dressed production with smooth scene changes, a great brassy soundtrack and some fantastic performances, especially from the two very different but strong, women.
As a play, Sejanus lacks certain character developments present in other, more popular tragedies; nevertheless, this ensemble certainly entertain on a much higher level than the bunch of weirdoes playing another power game on TV just at the moment.
Sejanus: His Fall is at Trafalgar Studios, The Mall until 28 January, Mon-Sat 19:30, Wed, Sat mats 14:00.
Tickets £34.00 to £15.00, depending on the performance. Box Office: 0870 060 6632.