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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Imperium (1. Conspirator, 2. Dictator)
Royal Shakespeare Company at Gielgud Theatre  Summer 2018

Six hours of drama set in ancient Rome can be a daunting prospect. 

And to tell the truth there are times when this Royal Shakespeare Company production of Mike Paulson's two-play adaptation of Robert Harris's trilogy of novels drags or simply gets so lost in its complex plots that you may begin to wonder what else you might have been doing with this chunk of your life. 

But it is also frequently engaging, fascinating and entertaining, and if you stick it out either through two nights at the theatre or a marathon of matinee and evening shows you will find much to satisfy you. 

Novels and plays both cover the years leading to Julius Caesar's rise to power and the aftermath of his assassination, as seen by a relatively innocent bystander, the philosopher-lawyer-politician Cicero. 

The first play, Conspirator, shows the relative peace of Cicero's term as Consul (i.e., elected chief executive) broken by plots and counterplots, so that it sometimes seems that everyone in Rome is jockeying for power either openly, as in the case of the thuggish Catiline, or more subtly and behind-the-scenes, as with the cleverer and more successful Caesar. 

The constantly shifting political manoeuvring makes this the kind of play in which we repeatedly see previous foes A and B forming a temporary alliance to defeat C while keeping a wary eye on D, with the identities of A, B, C and D different each time. 

It is therefore very useful that novelist and playwright have provided us with an excellent guide, in the person of Cicero's secretary and biographer Tiro, always there to clarify, explain and move the action forward.

Play Two, Dictator, begins with Caesar's assassination and follows Cicero's attempts to maintain some order in the political and military mess that follows. 

This play will be particularly interesting to those who only know the story through Shakespeare, since Robert Harris's version is significantly and fascinatingly different. 

Here the assassins are bunglers, the assassination itself almost farcically inept, Brutus an irresolute waffler completely incapable of making a decision, Antony a drunken lout whose wicked witch of a wife is the real brains in the family, and the political and military chaos so total that Cicero and Rome turn to Octavian Caesar to ally with the assassins against Antony, only to be double-crossed. 

At the core of it all is the character of Cicero, and one of the play's most inventive and entertaining elements is the way it shows how everything revolves around him or, rather, how Cicero himself sees everything as revolving around him even as we watch him being progressively marginalised into irrelevancy. 

The Cicero of the plays is an honest and honourable patriot and a clever politician, but what we begin to realise from about midway through the first play on, and he never does, is that everyone else either turns to him when convenient, manipulates him or simply ignores him in their power-brokering. 

(Some will spot similarities to I Claudius, but the difference is that observer and sometimes participant Claudius saw everything clearly, while here we get to watch Cicero's preconceptions and vanity getting in his way.) 

So there's a double vision to this dramatic marathon, the illustrated history lesson with its illumination of the ways power politics of the time (and today many parallels to modern political affairs are subtly or openly flagged up) were far more complex and just plain dirty than we learned in school, and the portrait of the man who may well have been the purest and cleanest of the bunch, but who was not the heroic figure he thought he was. 

With so much of the two plays built on the character of Cicero it is a special delight to see ever-reliable RSC stalwart Richard McCabe given a role fully worthy of his talent. 

McCabe can combine dramatic character depth with casual comedy, and from the start he makes Cicero's easy wit as important as his moral strength and political savvy in creating a complex and sympathetic character. 

At the same time McCabe can slowly lead us to the awareness of Cicero's vanity and over-estimation of his own importance without completely destroying our admiration for the man. 

Joseph Kloska is an amiable and attractive narrator-commentator-participant as Tiro, Peter De Jersey appropriately sly and menacing as Caesar, Oliver Johnstone effectively misleading as the not-as-innocent-as-he-looks Octavian. 

If Joe Dixon's Catiline in the first play and Marc Antony in the second are a little too much alike in their thuggish dimness, they are both effective characterisations. 

Director Gregory Doran does his usual expert job of moving everyone around smoothly, creating strong stage pictures, and getting the best out of his actors. 

Two long plays about ancient history may be more of a commitment than some are prepared to make. But for those willing to accept the heavy-going stretches, the new insights into history and the engrossing central performances will repay both time and attention.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Imperium - Gilegud Theatre 2018  
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