“History is truly the witness of times past, the teacher of life,” writes Cicero in his great work The Orator. It seems we never heed the lessons of the great instructor that is history, and the RSC’s ambitious Imperium feels timely and relevant in its depiction of Ancient Rome’s chicanery, political manoeuvring and corruption.
Following a sell-out run at the Swan in Stratford-on-Avon last year, Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy has opened in the West End for a limited run. Directed by RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran, Imperium charts the career of the extraordinary orator, philosopher and political statesman Cicero and his dogged dedication to the rule of law throughout infamous events—including and the rise and fall of the tyrannical dictator, Julius Caesar.
It’s a beast of a show. Both of its two parts (Conspirator and Dictator) are split into three short plays, each separated by an interval. With the plot racing across this series of six episodes, it feels like the theatre equivalent of a “Netflix binge”—fitting for an adaptation of a trilogy described by its author as “like the West Wing on the Tiber”. Because of its bite-size-chunk format, Imperium doesn’t feel as long as its running time, but it is certainly epic.
And the part of Cicero is decidedly epic in size. It’s no mean feat for an actor—Cicero is on stage for most of the play, and the stamina and energy of Richard McCabe’s performance throughout this marathon is extraordinary. This is a highly likeable portrayal of Cicero’s vulnerabilities, wit and, most importantly, his flaws. Cicero’s right-hand man and slave-secretary Tiro, played with an endearing everyman charm by Joseph Kloska, serves as a narrator and the link between the Romans and our world. Although his narration simplifies the overwhelming number of political players in Rome’s power games and makes the chronology crystal clear, it sometimes feels a bit like Horrible Histories for grown-ups. It’s fun, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Indeed, Poulton relishes in drawing parallels between Cicero’s world and 21st century politics, amusingly having Christopher Saul’s orange, clownish Pompey wear a certain familiarly-shaped toupee, and having Tiro make references to Brexit in a monologue to the audience. While this enjoyable approach draws many a laugh from the audience and is often incisive, sometimes the comparisons are a bit too heavy-handed, and could do with a lighter touch.
Unfortunately, Imperium’s depiction of women is disappointing. Not only is there a deficit of stage-time given to the small number of female characters, but the play contains stereotypical and categorically old-fashioned representations of women as bitchy, conniving nymphomaniacs. Eloise Secker’s talents are wasted on the two-dimensionally sexualised Clodia, and on Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia, an equally two-dimensional gold-digger. Siobhan Redmond’s performance as Cicero’s fiercely independent wife Terentia is excellent, and it is a shame that she does not have a greater role, as the single female character to whom Poulton has given any depth and nuance.
Feminist objections aside, this production is an exhilarating insight into Ancient Rome, as well as a fascinating on-stage biography of Cicero through a modern lens. It’s dark and gritty, the drama played out in a brilliant set that features a giant pair of mosaic eyes, constantly watching over the audience in silent judgement—the eyes of history, maybe, or of Justice herself. It’s also jolly good fun, as entertaining as any episode of Game of Thrones, and very funny. The many facets of the human condition are presented with timeless appeal. With this production, the RSC has truly created something special.