The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Production of Imperium:
Based on Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy and adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton (Wolf Hall) as two three-part plays, IMPERIUM is newly transferred to London following a sold-out run at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The play is really The West Wing in togas telling the story of the fall of the Roman Republic and rise of the Empire in an epic political blockbuster. There’s enough intrigue to keep even Andrew Neil happy and a tone that ranges from high melodrama to 4th wall-busting comic asides. It has some fantastic performances and enough narrative drive to make the six hours running time feel more like an episodic Netflix binge than six hours of heavyweight classical drama. Huge mosaic eyes dominate Anthony Ward’s set as Cicero’s story unfolds. We are guided through the machinations of Roman politics by his secretary Tiro, engagingly played by Joseph Kloska. The first play entitled IMPERIUM I: Conspirator opens with a young Cicero prosecuting the smug Sicilian politician Gaius Verres in 70BC, with the court case that establishes his reputation as Rome’s greatest orator. But as Cicero’s political stock rises and he becomes consul so this son of a chickpea farmer starts to make enemies. Cicero gains the title “the Father of the Republic” as he dispatches his bitter rival, the snobbish aristocrat Catiline in a brutal portrayal by Joe Dixon, to the political wilderness and eventual death. Dixon also takes on the role of Mark Antony, here a drunken yob a million miles away from the sophisticated soldier entwined with Cleopatra.
RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran’s direction is character-led with Richard McCabe’s Cicero being the most fleshed out. This is the part-of-a-lifetime for McCabe who goes on a journey from being a too-clever-by-half neophyte senator to his pinnacle as a pompous and vanity-driven idealist, master of his world and willing to sacrifice the welfare of his family for his principles. It is only Siobhán Redmond as Cicero’s exasperated wife Terentia who can stand up to him. Of the other female leads, it is Eloise Secker who impresses both as incestuous Clodia and the highly political Fulvia, pulling the strings behind Mark Antony.
Near the end of part II : DICTATOR McCabe handles Cicero’s impending demise with dignity. Despite his gleeful sense of superiority McCabe never lets us lose sight of his greatness as an orator and even with all his foibles this Cicero remains totally likeable. To the end he has one eye on posterity understanding that “All that remains of a good man – a good life – is what is written down.”As we are inhabiting Cicero’s take on classical history, Julius Caesar is not presented as a benign figure. Peter De Jersey is a brooding presence embodying a Nietzschean will to power that drives him on to dictatorship. He is undone by his total incapacity to understand how negatively his narcissism impacts on his followers. Oliver Johnstone as Octavian, Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, is a much cooler customer who turns the political skills he has learnt from being a starstruck student of Cicero’s writings into a ruthless articulation of realpolitik. Possibly too much effort has gone into making the production ‘relevant’. Christopher Saul’s bluff soldier Pompey has Trumpean hair and there are Brexit references that feel clunky – the drama is strong enough without these interventions – but with Paul Englishby’s music effectively summoning up the spirit of Hollywood’s swords, sandals and togas movies the RSC and the 25-strong ensemble have laid on an enjoyable romp through Roman history that lays bare the machinations and moral corruption at the heart of power. Sound familiar anybody?
All production photos credit Manuel Harlan.
IMPERIUM is at The Gielgud Theatre, London until 8 September 2018