RSC Imperium Part 1 and 2

Robert McCabe as Cicero

Robert McCabe as Cicero

Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy is a brilliant read.  Following Cicero from the start of the legal case that made him, to the heights of being a Consul of Rome and then his steady fall from grace to his murder at the hands of Mark Antony, the books are fascinating.  Told from the viewpoint of Cicero’s slave and only real friend, Tiro, we watch the fall of the Republic from the very middle of the stage.  When it was announced that the Royal Shakespeare Company would be adapting the books for the stage, I booked up tickets for Imperium as soon as I could.

Part I of the RSC adaptation by Mike Poulton bravely rushes through the first half of the first book.  The Verres trial that made Cicero’s name is covered in about five minutes of wonderful introduction of the main characters.  Joseph Kloska as Tiro briskly sets the scene, introduces us to his master, Robert McCabe as Cicero, and they whisk through the trail and to the aftermath of the election for consul.  From the the off, we are right into the Catiline Conspiracy, in which Cicero goes against the very thing that he so vocally fought for in the Verres trial, the right of every Roman citizen to a trial.  McCabe is majestic throughout.  He throws all the swagger and caustic wit of Cicero into a powerful performance.  He is aided perfectly by Kloska as Tiro.  Tiro is very much the ringmaster of the performance.  Tiro talks to us, breaking the fourth wall, to put us in the right mind for what is going on.  He introduces us to the new players of the game, Cicero’s wife Terentia (Siobhan Redmond), his daughter Tullia (a luminous Jade Croot), Crassus (David Nicolle), a rising politician by the name of Gaius Julius Caesar (a very nuanced Peter de Jersey) and his pupils Clodius (Pierro Niel-Mee) and Rufus (Oliver Johnstone).

Er… My friends, there are a lot of characters in my story – quite a few of them are named Gaius – so try to keep up.
— Tiro – Imperium Part One – Play 1, Scene 1

Each of the two parts of Imperium are broken into three roughly one hour plays, each covering a specific point in Cicero’s life.  In Part I, we have the introduction to Cicero and his battling of Caesar’s land reforms, the Catiline Conspiracy and, finally, the rise of his pupil Clodius and his sister, the irrepressible Clodia (a wonderful Eloise Secker).  Part I runs at a breakneck speed.  But the staging helps wonderfully, by making us the Senate, the Mob, the slave standing at the door.  The thrust stage is used to maximum effect, with the actors masterfully bringing us into the action.  In my case, my second row aisle seats meant that I was joined by the actors at various points, which was fab as they chat away in character and heckle from the “cheap” seats.  Part I has some of the best characters and events, the rise of Caesar and arrival of Pompey (Christopher Saul) and, of course, Clodius and Clodia.  Part I.3 is my favourite.  With Clodius, Cicero is up against a man he trained but utterly underestimates and in whose sister, he has no way to combat.  Cicero’s faith in the system and “will of the people” (which got laughs every time it was uttered) is undermined by the ruthlessness of the Clods.  As Part I ends, everything we have come to understand has been torn down and Cicero flees Rome.

Welcome to Rome!
— Clodus – Imperium Part One- Play 3, Scene 13

In Part II we have our actors returning, but in fresh roles.  This I don’t think this is too much of an issue if you are seeing both parts separately.  But if, like me, you are doing the whole thing in a day, it takes a moment to see that Joe Dixon who was Catiline a couple hours ago is now Mark Antony, who was played (briefly) before by Lily Nichol.  Anyway, Part II, which most reviews have raved about, I found to be the lessor of the two.  Once Caesar meets his end, McCabe doesn’t really have anyone to verbally joust with.  Cicero by this point was a waning force and this comes across beautifully as he tries to rebuild the Republic from a position of weakness, now faced by Antony and Fulvia (a now more shrill Eloise Secker).  All the while, The Boy Octavian (Oliver Johnstone) grows ever more powerful with his right hand man, Agrippa (a de-wigged Pierro Niel-Mee), ensuring his will is carried out.  The pacing is more deliberate in Part II, with the power plays playing out despite everything Cicero is trying to accomplish and his acid tongue, and age, finally catching up with him.  The looming of the fate we know to well is played beautifully out.  By the end, Octavian is the Emperor Augustus and Tiro, who started the tale, ends it with all the characters that have fallen returning, including his master.

Imperium is an incredible achievement.  There are no weak links in the cast.  Robert McCabe is incredible and is more than ably assisted by Joseph Kloska.  Between them they lead us through an incredible period of history, through the eyes of a remarkable man.  The intimacy of the setting and the passion the whole cast throw into their performances makes for a superlative set of plays.  I saw the characters that Robert Harris brought to life on the page in the flesh before me and as someone who almost always says the books are better, in this case, I really can’t.

Which oft our stage hath shown…
— Tiro – Imperium Part Two – Play 6, Epilogue

Imperium Parts One and Two are playing at the RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, until 10th February 2018.  You can book tickets for Part One here and Part Two here.

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