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Review - Imperium at the Gielgud Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The RSC is built for size. From such bold theatrical epics as the full Shakespeare History Cycle (all eight plays were last seen there in 2007 using the same company of 34 actors playing 264 roles) to its literary adaptations over the years that have included the two-parters of Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (both of which transferred to Broadway) and Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the company has both the resources and most importantly the ambition to think big.

And no playwright rises quite to the challenge like Mike Poulton, who adapted both Wolf Hall and The Canterbury Tales, and is now responsible for another gripping two-part, nearly eight-hour stage version of Robert Harris's epic trilogy of Cicero novels. In a recent interview in The Times, he was described as "the most successful British playwright you've never heard of."

Not that he's concerned about his own status. As he went on to say, "You can't afford to have an ego in theatre, especially if you are a writer. Because, can you think of a more collaborative art? In Imperium, we've got 25 actors, a director and an associate director, a choreographer, a lighting designer.... you are just part of the team."

Imperium takes an even longer - and larger - theatrical perspective of the history of democracy, the upholding of the rule of law that Cicero institutionalised, and the conflicting appeals of demagogy back to Roman times. And as ever, we are reminded that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. There probably couldn't be a more timely story - or cautionary warning - for the age of Trump that we are living through right now. Time and again, we are reminded of contemporary parallels (and not just because Pompey is a strutting peacock of a man with yellow-orange quiff). Or lines like "Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people" that brought the house down. (We're also cheekily reminded of our own country's diminished role in the Roman Empire, in which Caesar's conquest of it is dismissed as "a poky little hole nobody's ever heard of called Britain. I believe it's just beyond Europe.")

But the plays also makes the cut and thrust (not to mention the dangers and daggers, literally) of political life over the ages come to blazing life. One critic astutely dubbed the show "The West Wing in sandals" when this production premiered at Stratford-upon-Avon last December. Across six neatly digestible acts (each separated by an interval), we follow Cicero's life in the political life of his country, as told through the eyes of his servant Tiro who will be his official biographer).

Director Gregory Doran - artistic director of the RSC and a dab hand at productions that sometimes look like toga parties - marshals it all with an old-fashioned theatrical momentum and detail. Towering above it all is a riveting, complex performance by RSC veteran Richard McCabe as Cicero, who achieves a rare theatrical feat of ageing convincingly across the day, an orator in love with his own voice but more importantly one that gives voice to important principles of democracy, now - as then - under threat and a cautionary tale for us all.

But the other thrill of these productions - set on an epic vista of a Roman forum, presided over by a large globe over the stage upon which are projected impressive visuals - is the ensemble richness of the company, that also includes terrific work from Joseph Kloska as Cicero's biographer and our narrator, Joe Dixon as two of Cicero's adversaries Catiline and Mark Antony, Peter de Jersey as Caesar and Oliver Johnstone as Caesar's adopted son and protégé Octavian.

Imperium is at the Gielgud Theatre until 8th September. 

Imperium tickets are available now. 

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