Performance and Power: The Roman Actor v. Rose Rage
Roberta Barker
Dalhousie University

Barker, Roberta. "Performance and Power: The Roman Actor v. Rose Rage." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 21.1-8 <URL:

The Roman Actor. By Philip Massinger. With Antony Sher (Domitianus Caesar), Anna Madeley (Domitia), Joe Dixon (Paris), Amanda Drew (Domitilla), Shelley Conn (Julia), Sian Howard (Caenis), Joshua Richards (Junius Rusticus), Geoffrey Freshwater (Palphurius Sura), David Acton (Philargus), Antony Byrne (Parthenius), Michael Thomas (Aretinus). Directed by Sean Holmes. Designed by Antony Lamble. Music by Adrian Lee. Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon. Seen: June 22, 2002.

Rose Rage: An Adaptation of the Henry VI Plays in Two Parts. By William Shakespeare. Adaptation by Edward Hall and Roger Warren. With Jonathan McGuinness (Henry VI), Robert Hands (Margaret of Anjou), Matthew Flynn (Duke Humphrey of Gloucester), Christian Myles (Cardinal Beaufort), Guy Williams (Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York), Tim Treloar (Edward Plantagenet, later King Edward IV), Vincent Leigh (George Plantagenet, later Duke of Clarence), Richard Clothier (Richard Plantagenet, later Duke of Gloucester), Tony Bell (Earl of Warwick and Jack Cade), and Emilio Doorgasingh, Simon Scardfield, and Jules Werner. Directed by Edward Hall. Designed by Michael Pavelka. Music arranged by Tony Bell, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Vincent Leigh. A Watermill Theatre Production by Propeller Theatre Company at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London. Part one seen: June 19, 2002. Part two seen: June 30, 2002.

  1. In the first act of Massinger's The Roman Actor, the eponymous Paris gets a golden opportunity to stop the show when he is forced to defend himself before a tribunal that accuses actors of libelling Emperor Domitian's glorious state. His accusers declare that players "search into the secrets of the time, / And under feigned names on the stage present / Actions not to be touch'd at" (1.3.29-31). Paris' rebuttal echoes defences of the stage by such early modern apologists as Heywood and Webster. He declares that the whole world, including the Roman senate, is a stage, and that a good performance of virtuous actions, "[i]f done to the life," can inspire even lazy audience members to "contend to be / Like those they see presented" (1.3.78, 82-83). If sinful spectators find personal application in the general lessons offered on stage, he concludes, this is their own fault and "we [actors] cannot help it" (1.3.98).

  2. This tour-de-force of theatrical writing received applause when I saw Sean Holmes' RSC's production of The Roman Actor at the Swan Theatre. It was still sounding in my mind when I saw the second part of Rose Rage, Edward Hall's adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, some eight days later. Yoking these productions together in one review may seem an odd choice; after all, they involved two very different companies working with plays written almost forty years apart. Nevertheless, both plays are deeply concerned with the nature of power and corruption; both embody serious political issues in a theatrically entertaining format; both retain the power to shock audiences four centuries after their first performances. As I watched them, I could not help asking myself how far they lived up to Paris' vision of theatre's role in society. Paris asserts that theatre moves its spectators if done to the life; I was moved by Rose Rage but not by The Roman Actor. As Paris' speech insists, the impact of performances is determined as much by what spectators bring to them as by the performances themselves, and my highly personal reactions are no exception. Nevertheless, this review uses them to ask how two contemporary productions of early modern drama succeeded or failed in searching into the secrets of our own time.

  3. In comparing The Roman Actor with Rose Rage, the first point that struck me was that, contrary to bardolatrous expectations, Massinger's was the better play. Holmes' production of it took place within the context of a welcome 'Jacobethan' season during which a company of twenty-eight actors performed five little-known early modern plays in repertory at the Swan Theatre (the others were Edward III, The Malcontent, Eastward Ho!, and The Island Princess). The stageworthiness of these plays impressed many critics (one can only hope that their plaudits will inspire the RSC to fulfil the Swan's original mandate by mounting more of the repertoire so often neglected in favour of the decade's fifth revival of Twelfth Night). Massinger's play emerged with particular honour as a blackly comic and searchingly ambivalent interrogation of the inextricable links between performance and power. Its tyrannical emperor Domitian, his sycophantic courtiers and his traitorous wives all subverted virtuously-meant theatrical performances to their own ends while continuing to enact cruel and hypocritical roles on the courtly stage. It became impossible to take Paris' idealistic paean to acting at face value.

  4. Compared to so tightly structured a work, Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays seem diffuse and baggy despite moments of brilliance. To be sure, in creating Rose Rage Edward Hall and Roger Warren strove to eliminate the plays' more pedestrian stretches. The resulting two-part, four-hour-long structure pared Shakespeare's account of the Wars of the Roses down to its gripping narrative core. In the process, however, it eliminated many of the episodes and characters (among whom Joan La Pucelle loomed particularly large) that add to the complexity of Shakespeare's vision of spiralling civil war. The resulting text, in which each aristocratic power-grab and its attendant bloodbath followed hard upon the heels of the previous one, offered a less subtle take on cruelty and oppression than did The Roman Actor; if the latter constructed human beings as players who shift shapes in order to survive, the former depicted them simply as butchers who must either kill or be killed.

  5. Nevertheless, the final impact of the two productions was, for me at least, inversely proportionate to the quality of the texts on which they were based. Rose Rage was a compelling and unsettling theatrical experience, while The Roman Actor, though boasting some striking moments and performances, failed to cohere into a moving whole. The reasons for this have everything to do with the contrasting directorial choices behind the two productions - which seemed, at first sight, likely only to confirm The Roman Actor's greater effectiveness. After all, Hall's high-concept production emphasized the naked brutality of the Henry VI plays by setting them in an abattoir and illustrating each of the murders with graphic dissections of offal or sprays of exploding cabbage. Holmes' Roman Actor put its audience's sensibilities at considerably less risk, playing things relatively straight and allowing Massinger's play to 'speak for itself.' As W.B. Worthen argues, however, such anti-interventionist strategies are problematic, for performances "do not signify by citing texts," but rather by deploying readable theatrical conventions (1100). In Rose Rage, Hall recognized this truth by making a radically shortened Shakespearean text one component in a carefully assembled theatrical vocabulary. The disturbing setting; the all-male cast that changed roles with such aplomb; the pervasive use of English part-songs, motets and hymns to link one scene to the next; the bare-bones modern costumes that used single pieces (Warwick's elegant leather coat, Richard of Gloucester's fedora) to construct character: all imparted a sharply contemporary message about the voracious, 'masculine' urge for domination that underlies even the softest, holiest and most elegant facades. At times Holmes’ production achieved a similar unity. When grovelling courtiers greeted the Emperor Domitian as he perched on his pedestal like a sinister idol, their chillingly dissonant hymn epitomized the dark performances on which these characters depended for survival. All too often, however, the production's disparate elements failed to form a coherent theatrical code. The pretty pastels of many of the costumes and the light-hearted tone of a number of the plays-within-the-play did not mesh well with the high tragedy of the interrogation scenes or with the voyeurism and sycophancy that governed Caesar's court. Hall's production gained power partially because its aims became ever clearer as it unfolded; Holmes' lost power as its signifying systems lost coherence.

  6. The contrasting degrees of unity in these two productions were nowhere clearer than on the level of acting. The Roman Actor was completely dominated by Antony Sher as the villainous Emperor Domitianus. Watching Sher's leprous, reptilian, exuberantly awful Caesar was a joy, especially in the first stages of the production when each of his gleefully sadistic reactions to the suffering around him came as a surprise. The problem was that none of the other performers, proficient though many of them were, seemed to be acting in the same play. Amanda Drew was a strong Domitilla and Michael Thomas a compellingly slimy Aretinus, but Anna Madeley's one-note Domitia was no match for Sher's bravura nastiness and Joe Dixon's Paris lacked the charisma that might have made sense of her fatal attraction to him. Overall, Sher was expressionist, even camp, while the rest of the cast stayed within the boundaries of the efficient, discreet and rather dull realism that so frequently characterizes RSC acting. Sher's shtick thus gradually transformed the play into a repetitive one-man show rather than an unfolding exploration of a whole society's secrets. In the end, one felt merely dislike for Caesar and disinterest in his opponents. The play's majestic final scene of vengeance and retribution petered out, not with a bang of moral complexity, but with a series of whimpers: a literally and figuratively bloodless assassination; a sententious final couplet delivered with a notable lack of lustre by Jamie Glover; and the aimless, though doubtless symbolic, moan of flies buzzing around the Emperor's corpse.

  7. The acting in Rose Rage, conversely, was for the most part neither exhibitionistic nor introverted. Each of the twelve actors that made up Hall's Propeller company adhered to a clearly defined, presentational performance style designed to convey character swiftly, lucidly and compellingly. Actors did not identify too closely with their roles. Robert Hands signified the femininity of Margaret of Anjou by assuming earrings, a boa, a diva's regal stance and a drawling French accent; but he retained his masculine trousers and boots throughout and could drop Margaret's mannerisms at will. Imperious and witty, he was a stand-out among the cast; Tom Bell, whose patrician fascist of a Warwick contrasted sharply with his donkey-jacketed, loony-left Jack Cade, also merited particular praise. Richard Clothier, meanwhile, made a delightfully wry, soft-spoken and utterly ruthless Richard of Gloucester who dominated the play's second half and who finally closed it down with a conspiratorial smile at the audience and a whimsical 'lights-out' gesture. But none of these performers upstaged their fellows, and the production's stunning final scene was memorable as much for the sudden, sobbing breakdown of Tim Treloar's drunken and hooliganish Edward IV as for Clothier’s wicked nod toward the further adventures of Crookback. As a roasted pig's head and a raucous chorus of "The Boar’s Head Carol" brought the production's narrative, scenic and musical elements decisively together to reveal Edward's coronation feast as the culmination of the carnage, the final impression was of a passionately committed and even angry ensemble that had succeeded in depicting the self-perpetuating nature of violence "to the life."

  8. Massinger's Paris asserts that an acting company "cannot help" a spectator's individual responses to their work, but the comparison between The Roman Actor and Rose Rage suggests (to this spectator, at least) that there are certain steps the RSC must take in order to renew itself. Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Swan Theatre and mastermind of the 'Jacobethan' season, declares in his introduction to the season that the company decided "to work faster than usual" in order to produce it. Doran believes that in the process they imitated companies like the Lord Admiral's Men, for whom "[t]he text was the character," psychological motivation was a non-issue, and "there was very little rehearsal at all" (Massinger ix). Given the tedium induced by much stock RSC realism, such experiments are all to the good, but it's surely important to remember that the early modern companies who rehearsed so little worked together all year and presumably knew one another's personae, strengths and weaknesses inside out. Where Rose Rage surpassed The Roman Actor was not, finally, in hours of rehearsal time but in a director, a designer and a group of actors who shared a theatrical style, who believed passionately in their work, and who were willing to risk themselves in order to translate an early modern play into their - and our - own language. The RSC's new artistic director, Michael Boyd, must strive to create this kind of company and this kind of style someplace within the old institutional framework. If he can do so, perhaps the RSC's audiences will "contend to be / Like those they see presented." At the very least they might, like the audience that gave Rose Rage a standing ovation on the night I saw it, recognize their own hopes and terrors in the spectacles they see on stage, and not go home feeling that they have merely paid to witness a mildly titillating museum-piece.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).