Mark Ludmon reviews Imperium, the RSC adaptation by Mike Poulton of Robert Harris’s Cicero novels now playing at the Gielgud Theatre.
Thanks in part to Shakespeare, the story of Julius Caesar’s assassination and its aftermath is the most famous episode from Roman history. Shakespeare’s version gives few lines and not much of a role to the elder statesman Cicero who was a witness but took no part in the initial conspiracy. But he takes centre stage in Imperium, Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’s trilogy of novels for the Royal Shakespeare Company that recounts the politician and philosopher’s life against the background of this turbulent period.
The murder of Caesar is left to the second of the two plays that make up Imperium although, from the start, all roads lead to Rome’s most bloody moment. The adaptation takes us back to the early successes that established Cicero’s reputation as he overcame snobbery about his lowly background to prove himself as a successful orator. The first play, Conspirator, focuses on his year as consul when he uses skills to protect the Republic against the threat of a senator, Catiline, who turns against Rome after losing the election. Through twists and turns, we see Cicero cleverly manipulate and persuade, working with the young Julius Caesar and other politicians such as Crassus and Pompey as well as the patrician elite, earning himself the title of “father of the nation”.
Across the two plays, Cicero comes across as a good but flawed man, full of noble ideals about protecting and restoring a democratic Republic but he is increasingly revealed to be guilty of underestimating the ruthless egos of power-hungry politicians. Despite his self-assurance in dealing with the Catiline conspiracy, he finds himself out of his depth and driven out of Rome. After being drawn back into politics in the second play, Dictator, he appears the only voice of reason in the void left after Caesar’s death but, again, his confidence in his abilities is proven to be misjudged.
It would be tempting to find parallels with modern politics, not least when the statesmanlike Pompey recalls Donald Trump in manner and appearance, but Imperium is more timeless. It portrays the clash between political idealism and the chicanery of ruthless politicians who are more concerned with their own ambitions than pursuing a democratic ideal. Sometimes verging on self-satisfied, but always urbane and charming, Cicero is masterfully portrayed by Richard McCabe, with a mercurial humour and delight that brings sparkle to the political drama. Joseph Kloska is excellent as his secretary and biographer Tiro, acting as both narrator and sidekick.
Thanks to these two performances, there is plenty of humour and light-heartedness mixed in with the more serious business of Roman political intrigue. Peter de Jersey is impressive as Julius Caesar, steadily sliding towards godlike tyranny, while Joe Dixon is a great swaggering presence as Catiline as well as an unpredictable Mark Antony who is more of a drunk under the thumb of his wife than the hero of Shakespeare. John Dougall gives us an amusing perspective on Brutus who comes across as a dithering middle manager out of his depth after Caesar’s murder.
The more sedate scenes of oratory in the senate are matched by many more exciting moments when the underlying violence and chaos erupt, beautifully enhanced by Paul Englishby’s music and dramatic lighting effects by Mark Henderson, including an ever-changing globe suspended above Anthony Ward’s set. Thrillingly directed by Gregory Doran, Imperium is an entertaining rollercoaster through the political dramas of Ancient Rome. It makes no pretence to tackle darker themes such as the impact of imperialism – the Roman Empire’s subjugation of other countries such as Syria is dealt with lightly – but at its heart is the power of language. While Cicero’s belief in oratory and words to change the course of people’s lives is shown to be misplaced at times, Imperium celebrates the importance of freedom of speech and the threat that it poses to those who seek to undermine democracy.
Until 8 September 2018 at the Gielgud Theatre