The lengthy “Imperium” at London’s Gielgud Theatre can be summed up in a few short sentences: It’s in two parts, with three one-act plays in each. It fully justifies its total running time of more than six hours. This is a five-star event — go see it.
The marathon tale puts huge demands on the cast, and actually some in the audience – there are thankfully two intervals in each show. This is a Royal Shakespeare Company production, with some of the best players in the world at its disposal. Special praise is due to Richard McCabe, who bears a heavy load as the play’s main character. In terms of word length, it is one of the most colossal parts in modern acting and makes Hamlet look a doddle.
Don’t go thinking that it’s just some classical fantasy. “Imperium” is based on the life of Cicero, as further elaborated in a trilogy of novels by Robert Harris. This tale as relevant in 2018 as it was a couple of millennia ago.
“Welcome to Rome,” we are told exactly half way though proceedings. The greatest empire on earth had a veneer of classical respectability but we discover a “dossier of deceit,” corruption, treason, bribery, nepotism, multiple mistresses and rape of vestal virgins. Heads are cut off and put into buckets or nailed to walls. It is brutal, bloody and not at all civilized.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We see this with two Caesars, who are sure they are Gods, and also with the vain Pompey, who wants to make Rome great. In other words, make himself great. He looks remarkably like a certain U.S. president, even down to his perma-tan and sandy hair. Pompey wants to stand for the consulship. He is told that being crazy is no obstacle to being elected. Anyway, “stupid people vote for stupid people.” That gets a laugh, as does Pompey’s insistence that he is “a good Republican” rather than an aging clown.
There are a few swipes at Brexit too. Julius Caesar, we hear, has conquered everywhere, even “a pokey little hole” apparently called Britain. The country is a place beyond Europe, although there is some doubt about it, says Cicero’s loyal friend and advisor Tiro.
The adaption is by Mike Poulton, who has wisely trimmed some of the complex subplots, minor characters and backstory. He still leaves a lot of exposition and so the narrative keeps moving along at pace, with scenes changing in seconds. Cicero does not have much time for lingering doubts, long pauses, or even to sit still for a minute. He is a likeable lawyer and writer whose pleas for democracy are soaring and heartfelt. We follow Cicero though his consulship, his success in defeating a coup attempt by Senator Lucius Catiline and his role as a major influencer behind the scenes. Ironically we see how these successes unwittingly set the stage for even worse to come.
Cicero wins our admiration by publicly rejecting the governorship of Macedonia rather than behaving corruptly – and privately turning down bribes and sexual favors in exchange for his influence
McCabe cleverly shows how Cicero is also well-rounded. His enthusiasm for endlessly repeating his claims to be the People’s Consul, and the senate honorific title “The Father of the Nation” make him smug and pompous. He is easily won over by flattery. Cicero finally caves in and accepts a Roman mansion for a knockdown price. He seems more concerned about his books than his wife.
We lose count of the number of times that Cicero is told his actions are endangering his future and family. He is also constantly denounced for “not being a military man,” a phrase at first amusing in its repetition and later done to death.
Cicero is endlessly articulate and usually says what he thinks. This proves to be a problem near the end as he advocates the younger Caesar should be “praised, raised and erased.” Even when he is questioned on this, with his life again hanging in the balance, Cicero refuses to try to excuse the comment by claiming it as a misfired joke.
Jospeh Kloska is exceptional as Tiro, the narrator who is onstage as much as his master. Peter De Jersey is a strong Julius Caesar. Joe Dixon makes a great Mark Anthony, and he also plays the virgin-raper Catiline. Siobhan Redmond and Elouise Secker show that even in a man’s world, women could also plot, scheme and despair. There is assured direction by Gregory Dorian, while Anthony Ward’s adaptable set and music by Paul Englishby fit well. Poulton has already adapted Hilary Mantel’s novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies” for the RSC. “Imperium” has won praise at Stratford-Upon-Avon, as had the Mantel adaptions before they moved to Broadway.
Epic two-part plays are much in vogue, such as “The Inheritance,” “The Divide,” “Angels in America,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and more. The “Imperium” press shows were on some of the hottest days of the year: cloudless skies, sun beating down in 30 degree heat. At least it was cool inside. This reviewer spends a lot of time in theaters and indoors. If a six-plus hour term cooped up in the dark with a marathon of ancient Rome seems an endurance test, it emphatically is not. This is a superb piece of theater with jaw-dropping set-piece scenes: Vestal Virgins, candles, incense, swords, shields, soldiers and SPQR Roman banners. It’s part “Gladiator” and somehow part “The West Wing” too.
The Royal Shakespeare Company and Playful Productions presentation of “Imperium,” “I: Conspirator” and “II: Dictator,” based on the Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris is at the Gielgud Theatre, London, through September 8, 2018.
Founder Louise Blouin