In the beginning of As Rome Burns, we are treated to a brief history lesson of the early Roman Empire leading up to the reign of Nero: after the assassination of Julius Caesar his nephew adopted/son Octavian became the first emperor Augustus, followed by his stepson Tiberius, who passed the throne onto his (crazy) great-nephew Caligula, who was killed by conspirators including his own bodyguards, replaced by his great-uncle Claudius, who was poisoned by his wife/niece Agrippina so that her own son Nero could take the throne. Got all that?
As Rome Burns is an account of the life and times of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known as Nero, Emperor of Rome from 54-68 AD. If you’ve read any books or watched any documentaries on Nero, chances are that you were told he was a crazed madman whose depravity was only matched by his egoism – convinced he was an artistic genius, he held concerts where he sang and played instruments, forcing the people to applaud; he coerced his friend Otho’s wife Poppaea into divorcing her husband and marrying him instead only to kick her to death while she was pregnant a few years later; he forced his childhood tutor and trusted advisor Seneca to commit suicide; he may or may not have started the Great Fire of Rome in order to build his massively opulent Golden House in the middle of the city; he had a young slave boy freed, castrated, and married to him as his queen… the list goes on. All these events are included in As Rome Burns, but writer Nicholas Dave Amott has taken a more sympathetic view of the troubled emperor – an interesting point of view to be sure, but the way Amott has structured the plot of his play to stress this point makes the already complex historical material even harder to understand for the audience.
Even though it all happened nearly 2000 years ago, we still know that political affairs in Rome, especially in the late Republic and early Empire, were fraught with personal and professional ambition, rivalries, and a disgusting amount of incest – the Julio-Claudian family tree is rather difficult to plot.
As Rome Burns has two plotlines – one in the present, where Nero has travelled to the country estate of his freedman (former slave who is usually financially dependent on his former master but considered a trusted friend) Phaon, chased out of the city by his own guard who are searching for him to kill him. It is at this house that Nero will take his own life and leave a power vacuum that will plunge Rome into civil war for nearly a year and a half, but I’m already getting too far ahead. The other plotline, told through non-linear flashbacks, accounts the life of Nero and his many exploits/crimes. The relationship between the two plotlines, though, is handled in a frustrating way: Amott and director Brennan Richardson have smartly picked up on Nero’s love of ‘spectacle’ and explicitly make the flashbacks enacted by the slaves at the country house for Nero to watch/take part in… mostly. It gets a bit confusing because some flashbacks seem to happen in Nero’s mind, while others are actually being enacted for him. The dead Poppaea walks around onstage with the other actors, but only Nero seems to see her.
Mostly the issue with this show is that it makes the content unnecessarily confusing: because we’re supposed to sympathize with Nero at first (Amott plays Nero as more or less oblivious to his own madness), the beating of Poppaea and the order to have Rome burned come at the end of the show, necessitating a non-chronological order of flashbacks. Because we keep jumping back and forth in time, the already complex history of Nero’s life becomes nearly impossible to follow. Imagine if I’d jumbled up the first sentence of this review, would you be able to follow it?
The acting however is strong for the most part. Amott plays the Emperor as an almost innocent man who genuinely cannot believe that others see his actions as unnecessary and dangerous, which is a fascinating angle of a historical figure who is almost always painted as a villain. Sam Dietrich as the castrated slave/Poppaea substitute Sporus manages to capture the pragmatic nature of a one who finds himself in a highly unusual position but is determined to make the best of it, and Victoria Luloff’s Poppaea is loving and understanding and dark and twisted at the same time. Lawrence Evenchick though was my favourite: his stutter as the underrated Emperor Claudius and his gravitas as Seneca were the most grounded performances in this show.
The metatheatrical nature of this show is also one of its weaknesses: Nero is watching his servants and friends re-enact his life, but the audience itself is not acknowledged. It’s meta without actually being meta, which is bit odd. Also, the profusion of characters far outnumbers the five actors in this show, necessitating the usage of several masks – too many masks. Some attempt has been made to individualize them (such as straggly hair hanging in Claudius’ face) but since all the masks are the same shade of white there’s only so much differentiation one audience member can notice in the stage light.
This show certainly has promise, but it would benefit from a streamlining of flashbacks and perhaps putting a few more scenes in chronological order for the sake of the audience.
As Rome Burns
A Fireflood Theatre production
At Studio Léonard-Beaulne
Written by Nicholas Dave Amott
Directed by Brennan Richardson
Stage Management by Rachel Worton
Lighting and Painting by Rachel Worton
Sound and Marketing by Nicholas Dave Amott
Makeup by Annie Lefebvre
Costumes by Brennan Richardson and Maureen Russell
Set Design, Masks, and Fight Choreography by Brennan Richardson
Set Construction by Glenn Worton
Performed by Nicholas Dave Amott, Sam Dietrich, Lawrence Evenchick, Victoria Luloff, and Brennan Richardson