By John Lyle Belden
“Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is a new play by Southbank Theatre Company artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris, but stands well in style and content with other great historical tragedies. I sense it could have been written at any time between now and the 900s, when the myth that Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” became popular.
The premiere Southbank production of the play, at the IndyFringe Basile stage through Oct. 2, resembles a Bardfest event in its excellent handling by director Doug Powers and a cast that includes David Mosedale as Stoic philosopher Seneca and Evren Wilder Elliott as teenage “Princeps” Nero.
Despite the abundance of written material in the First Century, much of it surviving to today, the true history of Nero is anything but clear, with contemporary accounts often written by those who didn’t like the young tyrant and centuries passing to add myth and legend to his story. The fiddle didn’t even exist at the time, but it was possible to draw a bow across a lyre, an instrument that Nero did enjoy playing — and he embraced music and theatre at a time when its practitioners were in lower regard than prostitutes (never mind an alleged god-king). Just as we don’t mind the words that Shakespeare put into the ancients’ mouths, Eppich-Harris is perfectly entitled to her well-researched dramatic license, especially as she captured the spirit of the era and its abundant lessons for today’s social and political climate.
Seneca was Nero’s tutor when he ascended to the throne, and the boy, feeling immediately in over his head, smartly kept the philosopher on as principal advisor and speechwriter, as well as trusted military leader Afranius Burrus (David Molloy) to head his guard. Also on the scene were his ever-hovering mother Agrippina (Rachel Snyder), naive half-brother Britannicus (Brant Hughes), and dutiful but suspicious stepsister/wife Octavia (Bra’Jae’ Allen) whom he would ignore in favor of the beautiful and ambitious Sabina (Trick Blanchfield). At Seneca’s side were faithful wife Pompeia Paulina (Jenni White) and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan (Noah Winston).
Elliott brilliantly brings us along on the emperor’s journey, as he grows older and more at ease with power, but no more mature. At first troubled by signing off on the deaths of the justly condemned, Nero comes to find a quick murder is an easy solution to an immediate problem — but then more issues pop up in its place. Each death takes a little more of his soul, power-madness devolving to madness, reducing him until nearly no one is left, and the knife is in his hand.
Mosedale stands ever solid, defending his young charge as long as he can while defending himself against the hypocrisy of living large yet espousing Stoic principles. In the end, he must choose between Nero and Rome. White’s Pompeia leads the greater example, steadfast to her husband but never wavering on their moral stand.
Snyder embodies the complex Agrippina without slipping into villainous caricature, perhaps even engendering some sympathy as the evil she sows grows out of her control. Molloy exemplifies the “good soldier” completely, bearing his orders until his sense of justice can do no more.
An exceptional look at history and the dynamics and hazards of unfettered power, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is worthy to stand among the Classics. We encourage all who can to see it, and to those reading this in the future to consider bringing to your own stages.
Find information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org. Note that COVID-19 vaccination and masking are required of all audience members. Home viewing via “on-demand” streaming available Oct. 15-Nov. 14 (see Southbank site for details).