Imperium review – Rome sweet Rome, with a masterly turn from Cicero

Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon
Robert Harris’s trilogy springs fully to life in Mike Poulton’s two-part epic – but where are the meaty parts for women?

There are, well, a legion of reasons for going to Imperium. To experience a driving theatrical narrative on a scale rarely attempted. To be transported to the politics of ancient Rome. To see 21st-century politics through classical spectacles. To watch a masterly performance by Richard McCabe.

Mike Poulton, who adapted Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the RSC, has turned Robert Harris’s trilogy about the rise and fall of Cicero, and the decline of the Roman republic into a seven-hour, six-act, two-part epic. It thwacks down: clear, and, particularly early on, speedy. It helps that Harris is a storyteller not a phrase-maker. He nails a resonant subject, spins a plot, gives a sharp take on character. His default mode is plain speaking. Which makes Cicero’s eloquence the more luxuriant and striking.

Nothing miniature or delicate in Gregory Doran’s production or Anthony Ward’s design. A giant pair of mosaic eyes oversees the action. A bronze globe dangles: glowing, fading and – as an augury – darkened by a murmuration of starlings. Audiences count off contemporary parallels. The rise of populism. The suppression of citizens’ rights during a crisis. Conspiracy. Dictatorial leaders. “Stupid people vote for stupid people,” goes down well.

A point is sometimes pressed too far. Christopher Saul’s Pompey swaggers around with blond wig and pouter-pigeon chest, proclaiming himself “a good republican”. Actually, modern parallels are the least unusual aspect. It is the underlying manoeuvring that fascinates, the intricate arguments that entice.

McCabe – a celebrated Harold Wilson in The Audience – is a beautifully judged Cicero. Propelled by adherence to the republic and the rule of law, tugged by vanity, he operates sinuously, especially adept at warmly greeting someone he is excoriating. Expressions perch fleetingly on his face. It is words that count. After an impressive declaration, his jaw juts, his lips move: he savours his speech as if he can’t bear to let it go.

Joseph Kloska is shrewd and wry as Tiro, the slave who, as in Harris’s novels, is the framing narrator. It is an anti-dramatic device, but Poulton plays with that danger: “This is getting very expositional,” Tiro is warned. He should also be warned about dropping into facetiousness.

Tiro is rare in not being a chap about to take or lose power. Peter de Jersey is a lethal, poised Julius Caesar; Joe Dixon’s Mark Antony a feral panther. Oliver Johnstone, as the young Octavian is chilly and unwavering: he might be the statue of a child come commandingly to life.

Lily Nichol and Siobhan Redmond in Imperium.
Lily Nichol and Siobhan Redmond in Imperium. Photograph: Ikin Yum

This is a testosterone-fuelled production. Drums; whopping sandals; lots of roaring and rushing across the stage. Siobhan Redmond makes an intelligent, stalwart Terentia, wife to Cicero. Otherwise, the significant female parts are a saccharine daughter, harpies – and vestal virgins, who whisk around like ambulant lampshades. Of course, this is imperium. Still, Emily Wilson’s brilliant introduction to her new translation of The Odyssey shows the classical world as capable of feminist inflections. I would have welcomed some of those inflections here.

Imperium is at the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 10 February


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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