Imperium Pts 1 and 2
at the Gielguld Theatre
11th July, 2018
“Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people.”
Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy is a brilliant read: Imperium, the one that gives the stage version its title, (which was followed by Lustrum and Dictator) Following Cicero from the start of the legal case that made him, to the heights of being a Consul of Rome and then his steady fall from grace to his murder at the hands of Mark Antony, the books are fascinating. Told from the viewpoint of Cicero’s slave, loyal friend and amanuensis, Tiro, we watch the fall of the Republic from the very middle of the stage.
Each of the two parts of Imperium is broken into three roughly one hour plays, each covering a specific point in Cicero’s life. Part I of the RSC adaptation by Mike Poulton skims through the first half of the first book. Here, we have the introduction to Cicero and his battling of Caesar’s land reforms, the Catiline Conspiracy and, finally, the rise of his pupil Clodius and his sister, the irrepressible Clodia ( Eloise Secker). This section runs at a breakneck speed. The Verres trial that made Cicero’s name is covered in a break neck five minutes of an entertaining introduction of the main characters. Joseph Kloska brilliant performance as Tiro briskly sets the scene, introduces us to his master, Robert McCabe as Cicero, honing his rhetorical skills as a lawyer, then the focus on his accession to the consulship, the highest post in the republic. From the start, we are right into the Catiline Conspiracy, in which Cicero goes against the very thing that he vocally fought for in the Verres trial, the right of every Roman citizen to a trial. McCabe is majestic throughout. He throws all the swagger and ascerbic wit of Cicero into a powerful performance. Yet, Tiro is very much the ringmaster of the performance. Tiro talks to us, breaking the fourth wall, to put us in the right mind for what is going on. He introduces us to the new players of the game, Cicero’s wife Terentia (Siobhan Redmond), his daughter Tullia ( Jade Croot who I found irritating at times), Crassus (David Nicolle), a rising politician by the name of Gaius Julius Caesar (a very nuanced Peter de Jersey) and his pupils Clodius (Pierro Niel-Mee) and Rufus (Oliver Johnstone).
Joe Dixon’s Mark Anthony is puzzling, and while he reflects Harris’s suggestion of a drunk and thuggish man guided by his much smarter wife, it’s hard to reconcile the slightly pantomine performance with the strategic Mark Anthony who inspired legions to victory long before he married, outwitted the conspirators who killed Caesar with insightful eloquence at the funeral and became the tragic lover of Cleopatra in the future.
I welcome Anthony Ward’s compact design which achieves a sense of the imperial: a back-wall close up of eyes mosaic evoking the sense of Big Brother is watching you; a flight of stone steps upon which senators sit, cogitate and plot, and a large, suspended globe. It leaves us to rest on the dialogue. The staging also helps by turning the audience into complicit senators.
Aside, rising to take a two hour interval before returning to the evening performance, I realised I’d been seated three seats away from Rufus Sewell, who sadly did not return.
Meta-theatrical moments abound throughout. “Where were we?” as Tiro greets the audience at the start of the evening’s production. There’s never a wry comment too far away from our narrator, directed not just at his world but our own one too. Part 2, Dictator opens with Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey) enjoying that formal title of dictator, the civil wars of the first play having left the Roman Republic in chaos, and willing to let one strong hand rule it while it tries to re-establish its democracy. Of course, now that he’s sole ruler Caesar is unlikely to give up his power in a hurry, and Cicero (Richard McCabe) is brought out of retirement to advise his opponents. Cicero is visibly aged and increasingly frail, yet remains a tour de force; a detailed study in the desperation to cling to power, as well as a deluded belief in an influence that has long-since waned. He’s blindsided though when the conspiracy, of which he’d been unaware, assassinates Caesar on the steps of the Capitol.
Richard McCabe’s Cicero is not unlike a Shakespearean tragic hero, whose distinct virtues are undermined by a fatal flaw: his passionate attachment to republican values which is dressed with vanity, especially after Cicero is awarded the title “Father of the Nation” for seeing off Catiline. The running jokes in these plays involve Cicero endlessly mentioning his past triumphs, and others cutting him down by bringing up his lack of military experience, and these things become his downfall: He tries to make up for the latter with military strategy he never quite understands as well as he thinks, and the former makes him susceptible to flattery from Caesar’s nephew Octavian Cicero believes the teenager is his best hope to restore the Republic; the fact that Octavian is better known as the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, shows how far off-base that plan was. Cicero is endlessly articulate and usually says what he thinks. This proves to be a problem near the end as he advocates the younger Caesar should be “praised, raised and erased.” Even when he is questioned on this, with his life again hanging in the balance, Cicero refuses to try to excuse the comment by claiming it as a misfired joke. Oliver Johnstone as Octavian emerges first as a virtuous school-prefect, almost a Harry-Potter saviour, who gradually hardens into something quite different and threatening.
As Enoch Powell once said, “All political careers end in failure”.
A few things nipped at my heels. Firstly, the costume choices were a little baffling and the roman sandals far too shiny. Cicero’s execution was marred by being decapitated after the far-too-contemporary lines, “Let’s be having you!” Whilst I recognise the testosterone-heavy representation of history: one of predominantly white males in positions of power, the lack of cross-gender or gender-blind casting is disappointing all the same. An old adage goes, “There’s not enough blue in the sky to make a sailor’s trousers”. Similarly pessimistic, there are not enough actresses in the cast to stage a Vestal Virgins’ festival, without having men don veils. I’m not here to discuss women”, notes one character. “Pity”, says the other. So it’s disappointing to learn that there were only four women in this cast of 25. Less than 1/5. At least Hytner was braver with his production of “ Julius Caesar” at the Bridge Theatre.
Nevertheless, Richard McCabe and Joseph Kloska spark each other explosively, portraying an interdependent respect and love that pervades every scene. And they are in pretty much every scene. It’s an extraordinary feat by both actors.
Gregory Doran’s production is unafraid to underscore the contemporary parallels, perhaps too much, with the rise of pompous populist leaders with blond bombasts. The State of Rome and its politicians are applicable to the current political climate; it is no coincidence military leader Pompey Magnus is fashioned after American president Donald Trump. Christopher Saul even goes as far as to make Trump’s hand gesture, and is described as “a petulant child in the body of an ageing clown”. There are a few swipes at Brexit too. Julius Caesar, we hear, has conquered everywhere, even “a pokey little hole” apparently called Britain. The country is a place beyond Europe, although there is some doubt about it, says Cicero’s loyal friend and advisor Tiro. Sadly, it feels heavy handed at times.
Nevertheless, the overall impact of Gregory Doran’s colossus is one of impressive scale, matched by a sense of real drama, energy and clarity particularly in the Matinee production. It’s part “Gladiator” and somehow part “The West Wing” too. So after seven hours, I was truly sated. Having seen Poulton’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies”, I had the stamina for yet another epic 2- part marathon run which seems to be in vogue now.