Joseph Kloska interview - 'There are a lot of lessons for modern politicians in Imperium'
Just opened at the Gielgud Theatre, Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ best-selling Cicero trilogy has just opened having premiered at the RSC in Stratford. The epic two-parter charts the rise of Cicero in Ancient Rome, and studies the power politics and democracies of the time.
Joseph Kloska plays Tiro, Cicero’s secretary and best friend. His pervious acting credits include Written on the Heart at the RSC, and the Netflix series The Crown.
As the piece’s narrator, Kloska spends most of the six-hour running time on stage, so we asked him if he’s ever undertaken such a huge task, whether you have to be a history buff to enjoy the play, and what lessons Boris Johnson (and any other politicians) may take away from the play.
Imperium covers a pretty mammoth subject, can you summarise what it is about?
It’s a Roman thriller. It’s about the fall of the republic and it charts Cicero’s rise to council and the disintegration of democracy, and Julius Caesar rises in parallel with Cicero. That’s part one: Conspirator. In part two, Dictator, we cut to 17 years later when Caesar is still the dictator of Rome, and we see his assassination and the fallout of that. It charts this exciting, dynamic moment in Roman history when ambitious, greedy men fought for power.
Were you big on your Roman history before you did the show?
I love Roman history, but I wasn’t huge on it. I went on holiday to Tunisia once and wandered through some old Roman cities, but it’s been amazing to learn about this period. I think the thing that really rings true is just how nothing’s changed. Politics repeats itself.
So it shouldn’t put off someone who isn’t a history buff?
I play Tiro, Cicero’s secretary and best friend. I’m there to talk the audience through moments of particular knotty political intrigue. He breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience while also being in the play. That’s a device Robert Harris wrote into the novels.
It’s six plays, over two productions, six and a half hours, and you’re narrating it all?
It’s a bit like a box set. You watch an hour, then you get a break, then another hour, and another break etc. They’re so fast-moving and pacey that it doesn’t feel like six hours.
On a personal level, have you ever had such a mammoth acting task?
Me and Robert McCabe are on for almost every scene, and it takes a huge amount of energy. I’ve done a one-man show a couple of times, but that pales into insignificance compared to this. Two shows is an amazing experience for me because you get to tell the whole story, and then one is in need of a drink after it…
Was it a daunting task when you started in Stratford? Are things a little easier coming into the West End now?
It was daunting because we weren’t sure how it was going to land, or whether people would be able to stomach this long journey. But people loved it and it clearly speaks to now in a way that appeals to the audience. Bringing it into town feels really familiar but also quite alien. The Gielgud is completely different to the Swan. Our set feels huge in the Gielgud, and it’s going to take more energy.
Are there any lessons modern politicians could take away from the play?
Where do you draw the line between your idealism and being pragmatic? When do you, or shouldn’t you, stand for what you believe in and draw the line in the sand? It’s also extraordinary how things are so cyclical. People were worried about corruption and treason in Ancient Rome like they are now. We actually had Boris Johnson in last week!
Did you get any feedback form Boris?
I didn’t no. I was told he was in just before we went on stage, and as it’s my job to talk to the audience, I was trying to crane my neck and see if I could see a mop of blonde hair. You can tell from an audience when there’s someone like that in, and there are lots of lines in the play about stupid people voting for stupid people. That all landed quite nicely.
Does it ever affect you when you have someone like that in?
Not as a performer, but it often affects the whole of the audience. Everyone suddenly gets excited and their attention is split as they want to know how that person is reacting.
If you had to convince someone to come and see Imperium, what would you say?
It’s a totally thrilling, historical ride through one of the most exciting periods of ancient history. It’s about how lots of people lose their heads around power, and I think it has a lot of lessons for the contemporary word.
Imperium tickets are on sale now.