Imperium – Review

RSC Imperium. Images by Ikim Yum

Politics is a dirty business

Mike Poulton follows up his Wolf Hall Tudor epic for the Royal Shakespeare Company with a six-hour theatrical box set offering a House of Cards saga about murky political ambition in Ancient Rome.

Imperium is Robert Harris’s riveting Cicero Trilogy, a tale of back-stabbing, corruption and betrayal that is played out over six parts, in two separate shows, which you can binge-watch, as critics did, over one day, or opt for two different dates.

With breaks and intervals Imperium stretches over more than nine hours in the RSC’s Swan Theatre and, I guarantee, you will be riverted by Richard McCabe’s outstanding turn as morally ambiguous career politician, Marcus Tullius Cicero.

We may be back in the Rome of Julius Caesar but the politics are instantly recognisable – from fictitious TV shows like West Wing to our real life, silver-tongued, Honourable Members and government officials, all vying for the top jobs and the most powerful positions.

The one-hour, bite-sized, episodes cover the rise and fall of Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator whose most powerful weapon against treachery and insurrection was rhetoric.

He was the finest speech-maker of his day whose powerfully persuasive way with words, coupled with a theatrical delivery (think Tony Blair) enabled him to sway anyone from senators and voters to juries and baying mobs.

At a time when Rome was dominated by the ruling, wealthy classes, whose status and money allowed them access to positions of authority, Cicero won the year-long position of joint president of the Roman state by taking the popular vote.

And what an eventful 12-months it proved to be.

In this blistering tale of power and politics director Gregory Doran injects a some levity with Cicero’s trusted secretary, Tiro (a likeable Joseph Kloska).

He acts as narrator, popping up to offer explanations, background and opinion, occasionally delivered as an aside and accompanied by a knowing look or raised eyebrow from his master.

More than that Tiro gives the modern world an insight into one of the greatest men in history by writing his master’s biography from notes made during Cicero’s tumultuous year in office.

This is a big story, filled with larger-than-life names, fleshing out a furious and momentous time in world history.

But it is served up with all the excitement and intrigue of a modern day political soap that is packed with murder, mayhem, sex, betrayal and ruthless ambition.

McCabe is spellbinding as the multi-faceted and complex Cicero. On stage for almost the entire six hours he doesn’t tire for a second as we watch the politician talk his way into and out of trouble.

Cicero is far from your usual protagonist. He’s flawed and fallible, occasionally so consumed with his own ego that he is tripped up by the plotting of others.

Vain, conceited, yet quite superb at manipulating opinion and consensus, it is impossible not to be drawn into his world where one wrong move could signal death.

Around him we see his nemesis, Julius Caesar, brilliantly portrayed by Peter de Jersey, playing the long game in a bid to snatch power and Joe Dixon, intense and visceral throughout, firstly as the brutish Catiline, who vows revenge on losing the election to Cicero, and, in Part II, as a drunken Mark Antony.

Pierro Niel-Mee is acutely watchable as the duplicitous and incestuous Clodius who, furious at being deserted by his friend, joins conspirators in plotting Cicero’s downfall.

And, quietly slipping in under the radar, is Oliver Johnstone as the young Octavian, Caesar’s successor, who surprises everyone with his maturity and hereditary deviousness.

Financing the bribery and corruption is David Nicolle’s deliciously oily banker, the immensely wealthy Crassus.

This 23-strong ensemble delivers a terrific, edge-of-your-seat, drama that holds your attention throughout.

The impressive and thrilling Imperium runs in the RSC’s Swan Theatre until February 10.

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