REVIEW: IMPERIUM (Gielgud Theatre) ★★★★★
The RSC’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero novels moves to the West End after a successful run in Stratford and does not disappoint. The story is razor sharp, packed with jokes about politics and brilliantly delivered.
Veteran adaptor Mike Poulton has turned the three novels into six, hour(ish) long, sections spread over two plays, like a live action box set. Plotting, intrigue and violence bubble along as the rise and fall of statesman and orator Cicero (Peter McCabe) is told by his loyal slave Tiro (Joseph Kloska). Cicero takes on the great rivals of ancient Rome, Pompey (Christopher Saul), Crassus (David Nicolle), Mark Antony (Joe Dixon), Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey) and Octavian (Oliver Johnstone) in a high stakes game where winners take all and losers lose their lives.
Central to the story is that Cicero does not have the advantages of his rivals, he has no family power base, he has no military experience or an army to call on and all his wealth comes from his wife Terentia (Siobhan Redmond). Instead Cicero relies on his wit, his skills as an orator and his ability to manipulate others to survive in this cut throat world and keep Rome republican.
Conspirator sees Cicero try every move he can to keep Caesar out of power whilst fighting off open rebellion against his rule as Consul of Rome. Dictator sees Cicero try to deal with the consequences of Caesar’s assassination and salvage peace from the chaotic rivalries that ensue. In each part Cicero’s skills are clearly considerable but, in the end, he is often undone by his own hubris and sense of invincibility. At several points Cicero could safely walk away but a combination of a sense of moral duty and more significantly his huge ego sees him dragged back into the action once again.
McCabe is outstanding as Cicero; his comic timing is faultless and he captures both Cicero’s fear and pomposity perfectly. Kloska provides a subtle and energetic straight man to his master’s wit and the two are an excellent double act. Jokes are either spat out with ferocity or delivered with weary resignation and because the fourth wall is optional the audience can be included. As Cicero explains that “Stupid people often elect stupid people” the two leads are able to pause and let us work out for ourselves who this is aimed at. Pompey also gets a familiar blond wig that we are invited to join in the ridiculing of.
The rest of the ensemble is just as good as the leads and there are no weak links. Siobhan Redmond gives Terentia both steel and emotional depth; Joe Dixon brings a muscular brutality to both Cataline and Mark Antony; Peter De Jersey is a force of nature as Caesar, slowly building the character to a peak of God-like certainty during part one. Nicolas Armfield and Eloise Secker bring a youthful sex appeal as brother and sister Clodius and Clodia in part one. Secker then switches to arrogant manipulation as Fulvia, Mark Antony’s wife, to prove that plotting is not just the preserve of men in grey togas.
Anthony Ward’s set and costume design keeps us firmly in the classical world, with the set focused on the steps of the Roman senate and columns lining the edge of the set. Costumes conform to the classical stereotype too with toga and sandals the norm and breastplates and swords for the military types. Paul Englishby’s music also fits this approach with frequent fanfares supplemented by medieval sounding mood music. The one nod to modernity is a giant floating globe that has images projected onto it, for example flames when things turn violent.
The minimal set helps director Gregory Doran maintain a high tempo that means each section rattles along and each break leaves the audience at a cliff hanger so they can’t wait to get back to see what happens next. Despite the running time being well in excess of three hours for each part, this does not feel like a long production.
Given the dominance Shakespeare has in showing audiences the intrigues of the ancient world this version of events feels refreshing and innovative. Whilst anticipating Mark Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans and Countryman speech’ is unavoidable the fact that it never arrives is not only not a problem but injects a sense of realism. For a generation brought up on ‘Game of Thrones’, Imperium shows that real history is just as fascinating, violent and fun if delivered in an engaging way that connects with its audience. Cicero wondered if his life would be remembered in a 1000 years’ time but more than 2000 years later it is still a life worth putting on the stage if it is done as well as this.
Reviewed by Kris Witherington