Theatre Review – Petronius’ Satyricon, adapted for stage by Martin Foreman

Written by Fiona MacRae

The ancient text the Satyricon was originally written in Latin in the first century CE by Gaius Petronius Arbiter and only survives to us today in fragmentary form. Despite this challenge, Martin Foreman’s stage adaptation brings the characters and episodes to life with brilliant continuity. The joint efforts of the Arbery Theatre and the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group, performed at Assembly Roxy on 4-8 October 2022, made for a dynamic and entertaining production. 

The episodic plot of the Satyricon is a challenge to replicate, but the inclusion of a narrator, Petronius himself, played by Stephen Corrall, made the production easier to follow. Under his guidance, we are introduced first to Encolpius (Joseph Cathal), the earnest and sex-driven lead, a student who claims to be a gladiator, and then to Ascyltos (Ben Blow), his large and threatening best friend who actually could be a gladiator. Finally, we meet Giton (Scott Adair), the young and always ravenous boyfriend of Encolpius. Originally, this trio is fractious from the beginning, but Foreman’s decision to insert a scene from later in the novel allows their relationship to be established. This adventure involves a stolen dress and a lustful husband and wife who reappear at the end in a dramatic climax at sea. 

The surviving story starts with Encolpius making a speech about education in the forum against stoic Agamemnon, after which he gets lost on the way home and ends up in a brothel where he finds Ascyltos and Giton. They wind up watching a group of women perform the secret rites of Bacchus and Priapus, and after being discovered, Encolpius is cursed with erectile dysfunction. Following this, Agamemnon invites the trio to attend a grand banquet hosted by Trimalchio (Alastair Lawless), a rich and arrogant man paranoid about death. The trio split up after Ascyltos sleeps with Giton, but reunite to escape a common enemy, disguising themselves as slaves belonging to Eumolpus (Roger Wylie), a tutor, as he embarks on a journey overseas. Their escape is foiled, and a storm washes them up on shore with the body of their drowned enemy, Lichas. The rest of the original story is lost and up for interpretation. 

The tale shows many figures from Ancient Roman daily life in varying degrees of satirisation: generic citizens of the local towns, slaves, sailors, merchants, philosophers, and poets. Many of these appear simply as part of the play’s chorus, but they are disgruntled that their story is not told. They ask Petronius about their stories and their lives and occasionally break character to engage with issues that are less savoury to the modern audience. This worked well to show a consciousness of differences between today’s society and that of Roman Italy in the first century CE, such as the absence of autonomous women as well as transgender and non-binary people in ancient writing. While in most cases the conversations contribute nothing to the plot, they prompted the audience to think critically about the performance and the text it is based on. 

The most apparent (and entertaining) satirical character is Trimalchio, an arrogant freedman who has worked his way up to be one of the richest men in the empire, although apparently that much money cannot buy taste or friends. He is characterised by his love of excess, bedecking his wife with expensive clothes and jewellery, serving enormous amounts of rich food, and having hundreds of slaves at his beck and call. The hilarity of his character, however, stems from scatological humour and his preoccupation with death, a further reflection of some figures of Roman society. 

Given that Petronius’ own fate unfolds parallel to the story, a trick was missed at Trimalchio’s feast. Petronius was appointed arbiter elegentiae (judge of elegance) by Emperor Nero in approximately 63CE, a fact which is mentioned in the play, and three years later was accused of conspiracy and put to death by the same emperor. It is widely believed that the excess, arrogance, and paranoia shown by the character of Trimalchio is a satirised portrayal of Nero himself, who was famously afraid of omens and portents and exhibited erratic behaviour, especially towards the end of his life (he died in 68CE, two years after Petronius). This allusion is not commented on by the Petronius character in Foreman’s adaptation; instead, it is replaced by a scene that does not appear in the original text, in which up for a slave girl, set to be punished by Trimalchio, begs for her life and tells of her tragic backstory. Eventually, she is dragged out kicking and screaming in a dramatic climax at the end of the first act. While impactful in highlighting the horrific and often inhumane treatment of slaves at this time, it could have been further emphasised by mentioning the irony of Trimalchio’s actions, himself being from slavery and blinded by riches. Instead, Petronius, the great arbiter of luxuries, simply wonders where the slave girl came from and why she was in his story. 

Foreman’s Petronius is perhaps not meant to reflect the real Petronius. The real Petronius was said to be a pleasure seeker as well as a capable politician, but Petronius the narrator is a solemn soul, a direct contrast to his bawdy works. While the pensive character works well for the conversations he has with the slighted characters and actors, it is hard to place the serious man portrayed with the outrageous and frivolous plot he created. The sombre portrayal of Petronius does, however, make it easier to engage with the questions a modern audience would have. A frivolous narrator would perhaps say ‘Well, to me they didn’t matter!’ whereas here we have a narrator who reflects on his work and has a sympathetic and thoughtful approach to his answers. Furthermore, the audience is more empathic to a narrator who admits his shortcomings; thus, the final scene, portraying his Socratic suicide, is more mellow and thought-provoking. If we had a more hedonistic and carefree Petronius, the impact would not be the same.  

In aiming to merge the themes and ideas of an ancient text like the Satyricon with the morals of today’s society, the production was a successful interpretation. A disclaimer in the programme announces that it is not intended to be a historically accurate production and is meant to leave you asking questions. It was certainly successful in this aim, even if half of those questions were along the lines of ‘Is that a giant dildo?!’ 

Featured image credit: Couture, Thomas. The Romans in their Decadence. 1847. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

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