Richard McCabe as Cicero. Pictures; Ikim Yum

Imperium Part I: Conspirator &

Imperium Part I: Dictator

Swan Theatre



Imperium, the RSC’s latest two-part offering based on Robert Harris’s celebrated trilogy about the final years of the Roman Republic, clearly had massive potential as an edge-of-seat stagework.

But in this occasionally plodding adaptation by Mike Poulton it may not go down as the company’s, or the glorious Swan Theatre’s, finest hour.

Accepting that the original, like his other masterworks, is something of a blockbuster, Harris has himself conceded it’s a bit, well, West Wing-on-Tiber. But The West Wing is a tightly scripted, often nailbiting drama. From the pretty clodhopping opening scene here, it looked as if we were in for an evening of Blackadder.

That some of the characters are posturing and intermittently banally drawn, however, is not the main issue. While the second play (sections 4 to 6), hurtling abruptly (but rather grippingly) to the demise of Caesar, then Antony as the problem (all pre-Philippi; Antony is then disposed of – actually 12 years later - in a sentence or two) and then finally the ascendancy of the young Octavian, all three depicted with real conviction, the earlier bits (titled Cicero, Catiline, Clodius) have none of that persuasiveness.

Why this, on the face of it, ungracious response? I can spell it out. But first, the element of genius, besides Richard McCabe’s increasingly believable Cicero, secretly manoeuvring, wickedly dissembling, and joyously vain, was the use (by Harris, and hence Poulton) of Cicero’s slave/freedman/secretary/confidante/biographer Tiro (Marcus Tullius Tiro: freed slaves took their former master’s name) as the means by which Cicero’s thoughts (as expressed in his numerous letters to his friend Atticus, for instance) can be posed as a conversation.

McCabe is able to muse aloud without it becoming an interminable monologue. The exchanges are intimate, voluble, occasionally mutually exasperated, but the device works wonderfully. Tiro is the second most important person throughout the whole drama.

And that has a lot to do with Jospeh Kloska’s attractively brilliant Tiro. He’s bright – freedmen and secretaries, especially Greek ones (the bookish Cicero keeps yearning to retire to Athens to escape the mayhem) generally are.


Joseph Kloska as Tiro

But Kloska is like a book himself. His facial gestures, his endless frustrations, his pensive stances and gaping, agog or screwed-up eyes, his wonderful cheek, his gift for irony, his sheer disbelief, canny instinct and ability to see disaster coming, make Tiro one of the undoubted hits of the script. This aspect is a triumph for Poulton. When Tiro takes the stage after the first scene of Part One has limped to a close, he’s like a searing burst of sunshine.

Not his cloak. Kloska wears a rather appealing beige and brown outfit, clearly modelled on what we know, or think we know, of rural outfits of the time (he tries to retire himself, to a farm, but is inveigled back by his wily master); but it never changes. And the ubiquitous cloak becomes an annoyance: amongst other things, it makes Tiro become an obstruction in certain scenes where Cicero needs to hold the stage alone. Potentially powerful dialogue bccomes less effective trialogue.

Equally, Kloska, a miracle of an actor, eventually runs through his range of grimaces and shrugs: he needs, deserved, directorial help to give them more edge and variety. He never loses his enchanting personality, but by the end of two evenings he seems just a fraction played out. Structurally, he needs to change: to adapt, and evolve. Conversely, the other weakness in Part One is that Tiro is not given the stage enough alone. When he rules the boards, as he does more in Part Two, we get a different Tiro, not a deferential dog, but an energised – almost – philosopher. He can introduce another layer. This six-parter badly needed more layers. It is all a bit samey, and a bit like the Philippi scenes from Julius Caesar, where even Shakespeare’s play tends to runs out of puff.

The main issue with Part One is that the major characters apart from Cicero himself are thinly developed, and – although the splendid Greg Doran is in charge – one hazards, weakly directed. Assessing out the precise roles of Catiline, foiled by Cicero, or Clodius, Caesar’s underling, is difficult even from the historians. We are made little wiser here.

Caesar (the famously forceful Peter de Jersey), who emerges in brief resplendent glory, dazzling in scarlet, as Part One closes, and is electrifying both before and during the assassination scene that launches Part Two (though the assassins look pretty feebly blocked and moved: no ‘Speak, hands, for me’), hangs about like a limp sapling onstage for several of the scenes, completely uncharacterised: wet, compromised, feeble. Calling him ‘an ambitious young senator’ scarcely washed: born in 100 B.C., he was 40, twice Octavius’s age, by the time of the First Triumvirate.

The equally doomed Crassus (David Nicolle, rather good in other roles in Part Two) is turned into a ludicrous mincing fop, straight out of Restoration Comedy, and not even much good at that: the flouncing is badly conceived, pure Are You Being Served or ‘Allo ‘allo, lousily directed. How earth could Doran imagine this was a clever evocation of Rome? It was the naffest of the naff.


Peter de Jersey as Caesar

Christopher Saul’s Pompey, obviously classed as pompous, is turned into a comic twat: grandly assertive (Saul might have made a strong Crassus, or Lucullus) but despite the resplendent breastplate (forbidden in the Senate House) was as daunting a presence as Rik Mayall in, yet again, Blackadder. To give him a Donald Trump fair quiff was, well, pathetic. Crowd-pleasing: of course the audience loved it.

Joe Dixon’s Catiline might have impacted much better with a sharper script. Once he becomes Mark Antony in Part Two, he cuts an unexpectedly awesome and ruthless figure; setting off to polish off Caesar’s killer Deci(m)us Brutus on the borders of Cisalpine Gaul at Mutina (Modena), we can believe he will take it by storm single-handed.

But the roots of Catiline’s conspiracy, the underlying mixture of motives, the precise nature of his threat which will give Cicero his moment of greatest triumph (‘ Pater patriae’), are scarcely revealed to us. You feel the script bumbles, and some fine actors are left flailing to deliver it.

What did save Part One, where might otherwise have creaked, was first, Mark Henderson’s competent lighting, making the best of an unchanging main set; and some minor roles. Siobhan Redmond as Terentia, the orator’s wife, was always commanding. Jade Croot as his possibly very young daughter Tullia, who will die giving birth to the turncoat Dolabella’s child, is an utter delight. More importantly, she shows off to perfection the other Cicero, the caring human being. In Rome, family mattered.

Hywel Morgan’s Hybrida, Cicero’s deliciously unreliable consular colleague, pissed most of the time, gave Part One an uplift every time he impudently careered onstage. A bit of a star (minor role in Part Two, till he bumps off Cicero). I liked Michael Grady-Hall’s crazy Cato, obsessive, wild, even manic. The black attire somehow suited him. Patrick Knowles’ uppity, chameleon–like Dolabella was apt, too. These and other smaller roles helped the material no end.

The prominent senators fare less well. Simon Thorp’s Catulus, who has one particularly impressive and overawing scene in Part Two. Sounds like Brian Blessed in O’Toole’s fated Macbeth; elsewhere, again undirected, he cuts a dim, also–ran figure.

Nicholas Boulton’s Celer, the augur, fares better: he speaks fabulously well, although by providing a dead ringer for General Melchett in Blackadder rather loses the battle. He has considerable presence, to the benefit of the whole. He understudies Catiline and Antony, and one can imagine him carrying both off.

In Part Two (as Cassius) he would be a far better bet if he was given decent lines to assert himself with. John Dougall’s rather hopeless Brutus (that is how he depicted: dithering) lends nothing to the impact and seriousness of the subject. His Lucullus in Part One, retiring into posh ignominy, was rather successful: colourful, flamboyant, puffed- up, expectant.


Nicholas Boulton as Cassius

Piero Niel-Mee’s Clodius is pretty forceful, striving to get the populace on board for Caesar, and Eloise Secker (his somewhat notorious sister; would that some of her antics were fuller alluded to: step forward, Catullus) likewise. She proved terrific reappearing as the even more feisty Fulvia, Antony’s wife. Cicero’s brother, Quintus Cicero, a sympathetic and useful addition, and always an amiable presence, was attractively played by Paul Kemp: family is where security lies.

At worst this was like the dullest scenes of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, lacking the variety and insightful diversions that distinguish the bard’s great plays. You cannot just plod along with not always very perspicacious history (the selection, more than the original) – even despite the smart-witted interjections of Tiro - and hope that it makes for compelling drama. It fell to McCabe’s endlessly shrewd Cicero, who admittedly is well drawn in the script, with many faces and facets, to save the day. He did, but nearly not.

A drawback of both parts was Anthony Ward’s set, presumably hammered out with Doran (Ward, a noted opera designer, is right at the top of his field), which yielded a rather marvellous, but unchanging, massive mosaic at the rear, whose occasionally glowing eyes seemed mysterious and suggestive, but mostly lent nothing; a vast set of steps which supplied, I suppose, the raised tiers of the Senate, but looked like . . . er . . . a flight of steps.

You kept waiting for Battleship Potemkin’s pram to come ricketing down. The blockings of characters thereon looked pretty haphazard to me, the senators mostly vapid en masse, until one later sequence when Doran treated us to a particularly fine, less haphazard–looking, and welcomely relevant - arrangement. A huge globe hanging over the stage was used for – nothing, really.

The one item of set that categorically worked a treat was the vast aperture in the centre of Swan stage which can be opened at will to raise up furniture – a catafalque, for instance. Again, this featured more in Part Two, where it was employed to excellent effect time and again.

Here, to a degree, was the variety one craved for. It had an authority. When the young Octavian and Agrippa appear on it, we sense they are destined for greatness. As indeed they are. Oliver Johnstone’s diffident and by stages more confident, finally genuinely and believably threatening Octavian (Augustus) was a treat (so was his student in Part One). So was his lieutenant Agrippa (Niel-Mee again, loyal, unflinching: like two schoolboy friends, they missed not a trick).

Costumes (Ward again): a firm attempt was made to avoid the traditional purple-edge white we associate too easily with the senatorial body. The variation was only to a degree successful. Some of the designs looked first-rate, some shoddy or lacking. A range of colours onstage is indeed a help, and Roman tunics could be any colour you liked. White, or beige, togas wrapped over senatorial shoulders (not consistently, till the end) served well enough.


Piero Niel-Mee as Agrippa

The music, by composer Paul Englishby, an Associate Artist with 20 RSC scores to his credit, and directed by Gareth Ellis, is a bore. Any ensemble of six featuring a trumpet, a trombone and a tuba, sounds doomed. What fabulous, on the nub players they are, percussion included: no moans about performance, but about the material. The RSC loves fanfares for history plays (the late Guy Woolfenden was adept at them), and aches to get its hands on a battle. But the constant brass blasts to cover the interstices here fast become partly repetitive, mostly monotonous.

The redeeming feature in this pumping, pummelling score was Clare Spencer-Smith on the cello. Each time Englishby deployed her, it was beautifully apt, imaginitive too.  But not a whisper of those blazing wind instruments, an oboe like a screeching soprano saxophone, or the joyous undertuned brass we see snaking round soldiers’ arms. This jaunty music could have belonged in any era. It’s like writing Victoriana for the 1450s. What we wanted, needed, was Rome. They even played us out. An exaggerated sense of their own importance.

It was only near the end, too, that we began to become aware of Cicero’s own pronouncements. True, every word might have been culled from somewhere in his letters. But that was not the feeling achieved. Tiro quotes twice from De Republica near the end; but these are small beer. The most brilliant scene is when Cicero at last returns to the lawcourts to take on a young whippersnapper of an opponent. He wipes the floor with him. But as he embarks, for the first time, on his unremittingly powerful forensic rhetoric, we somehow glimpse a Cicero who is quite different from the chit–chat that has preceded. Let loose on this, McCabe is masterly. Why so late? Why not more?

McCabe is pretty fabulous, too, at giving us the full man, throughout: petulant, irritating, bossy, self–preoccupied, face–pulling, insistent, puzzled, only occasionally self–parodying, and as it tragically emerges, out of tune with the times. The ‘boy’ Augustus will turn the senate into more or less what Doran inflicts on us here: dull, inept yes–men.

But in that one isolated court scene McCabe is spectacular. He takes wing. We see someone who is all too able, a non–patrician, to take on Catiline, and yet again Antony (both the leonine Dixon). Is Cicero a bitch, even a monster? As counsel, certainly.

What Part Two has over the earlier bits screams out: it is set–piece dialogue. Where we see two characters battling it out, tricking, outwitting, needling one another, the impact is so much greater. This is Greek drama. This is Othello and Iago. These are the scenes that Doran easily manages best. Perhaps even he may have longed for a meatier script.  

There is a delicious joke (lots of nice irony, but not too many straight hilarities in this show –, except when it shambles), where Cicero mocks engagingly bluff Calenus (Simon Thorp) for his appalling Latin. And it reminds us of another loss we suffer in this staging. With the exception of a couple of brief allusions, there’s no Latin. We miss it. A chance for added mood, mislaid. Even a few dotted technical terms (‘turma’ is one). At times we seemed a million miles away from the real Rome, the Roman atmosphere. Where was the research?

And one hapless aim was to draw lightweight ‘parallels’ with today; fat chance. The material is, or should be, self–sufficient enough, without the need to trivialise it.

Richard McCabe as the struggling, bedevilled, luckless Cicero, consistent to the end, carries so much on his shoulders, so mesmerisingly, and builds such a believable figure compared with the ciphers around him, it might seem ungenerous to allot to another top billing. Not so much heroic as endearing, McCabe surely deserves the laurels.

But the Titan here, without doubt, is the dauntingly powerful, massively impressive Joe Dixon. An RSC Associate Artist, Dixon – a Lear, a Macbeth, above all an Othello, among earthlings – is not only expressive across the full acting range – from thundering and explosive to pleading and wheedling: not here, but his pathos–ridden Caliban (opposite Simon Russell Beale), surely one of the best things seen and heard at the RSC in the past two decades.

He is a speaker of awesome power, yet of unerring beauty. His body exudes threat, he unfurls a presence of enormous weight, yet he can soften like settling snow. This is a mighty performer, a voice that can reassure as much as dominate, a persona possessed, paradoxically, of a unique kind of empathy with each and every kind of role. He can breathe perfume as easily as fire. Literally, a giant. To 10-02-18.

Roderic Dunnett


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