22nd Apr, 2018

REVIEW - Imperium, RSC, Strtaford-on Avon

Imperium

RSC Swan Theatre

Rome: The Box Set. The RSC serves up a theatrical marathon in Mike Poulton’s monumental adaptation of Robert Harris’s Cicero Trilogy.

Six plays over as many hours offered in two chunks, and in a single day for those who like their event theatre.

The action explores the political career of Cicero, ancient Rome’s greatest orator and a man whose political machinations make for fascinating drama.

Through six plays (in truth a lot more like six segments of the same play) we witness Cicero take on enemies, convince the doubtful, hoodwink the gullible and effectively talk his way to the top. There’s elements of West Wing, The Sopranos and – during frequent comic asides – even Yes Minister.

Cicero’s personal timeline sets him up against formidable opponents in the Senate and on the battlefield. The terrifyingly threatening Catiline, the power-hungry Caesar and the young upstart Augustus all provide stiff challenges. And the whole roller-coaster career is patiently documented by his faithful Dr Watson, Tiro.

From energetic, thrusting orator to aging, even vulnerable senior politician, the sweep of time moves through scene after scene of plot and posturing all masterfully staged by Gregory Doran. An adaptable design and as many togas and sandals as the wardrobe can provide mean this production looks as good as it sounds.

Modern references prevent this becoming a history lesson. Trump gets a savage dig in the ribs, the continued plea of ‘let me be clear about this’ can only be a swipe at our own leader and there’s even a mild kicking for those politicians of the past who think taking the country to war is a fitting task for the non-military.

Epic theatre like this calls for epic acting and the performance put in by Richard McCabe is nothing short of wonderful. He truly embraces the full scope required; he’s wise, clever, skillful, funny – everything this top class script deserves. Absolutely masterful.

There are fine performances throughout from, among many, Peter de Jersey (Caesar), Joe Dixon (Mark Antony), Oliver Johnstone (Octavian) and from Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s influential wife Terentia. And then there’s Joseph Kloska’s hugely enjoyable secretary-cum-friend Tiro – a real tour de force.

It will be interesting in ten years ’time to find out what becomes of this theatrical monster. Shakespeare’s Roman works will be back on the Stratford stage twice in that time, Derek Jacobi’s stuttering Claudius and Russell Crowe’s sweaty-toned Maximus will still be on the small and big screen respectively. Even the Pythons and Howard Brenton will surface from time to time.

But what of this work? It’s hard to imagine anyone but the RSC having the resources and the ambition to stage it. It really doesn’t seem to have a future in being broken up into single or double plays – the first and last plays offer a beginning and ending of sorts, without which these run the risk of just being extended collections of scenes. Only over the whole six hours do the themes and lines emerge. All or nothing perhaps. All of which is a great pity as Poulton’s scope and depth provide roles of genuine gold for those who take them on.

If the relative unlikelihood of seeing this production repeated is as feared, then there’s all the more reason for trying to see this now. If you can only go to one trio then the second part offers perhaps the more fireworks. But this really is a spectacular feast you should really try to enjoy over its full, beautifully-balanced six courses.

Visit rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.

Matthew Salisbury

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