When the RSC gets it right, standards are uncompromised, stars are born, great acting is everywhere, and the lustre of theatre is never brighter. Lives change. So it is with Gregory Dorian’s near faultless production of Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy. It is a complete triumph, a magnificent spectacle, and a rich and rewarding fusion of imaginative staging and canny, complex acting skills. Richard McCabe is in towering form as Cicero and he has superlative support from Joseph Kloska as his companion Tiro. But The Imperium is likely to be remembered as the moment two young men became bona fide stars, for Oliver Johnstone and Pierro Neil-Mee give the most compelling and assured performances of the evening. And in this company, that is quite an achievement.

Imperium

If only you will look up on high, and contemplate this eternal home and resting place, you will no longer concern yourselves with the gossip of the common herd – nor put your trust in great and powerful men – nor look to them for any reward for your labours. All that men do or say dies with them and is blotted out – lost and forgotten in the slow embrace of time. All that remains of a good man – a good life – is what is written down. 

Mike Poulton, the genius behind the RSC’s triumphant stage adaptation of Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies and the lyrical, quite haunting Kenny Morgan, has come up with the goods again. This time he has written six plays based upon Robert Harris’ The Cicero Trilogy – Cicero, Catiline, Clodius, Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian. Together, they constitute Imperium, a two-part, six-hour-plus epic now playing at the RSC’s Swan Theatre.

It is magnificent.

Gregory Doran, ironically given he is the RSC’s Artistic Director, has directed Imperium with flair, insight and involving energy – attributes which he has not brought to many of Shakespeare’s works in recent years. The vision is clear, the casting unerringly apt, the driving pulse intelligent and captivating, the treatment of the language superb, the expectations confounded and the hopes all far exceeded. Imperium is that rare treat – a new work that seems both classical and modern, funny and terrifying, sublime and extreme.ImperiumDespite the fact that the events which play out over the six Acts are set over two thousand years ago, they seem startlingly relevant to the wretched and rancorous political spider-web in which all parts of the world seem currently ensnared. Power – for benefiting the greater good, for amassing private fortunes, for personal glory, for notions of patrician entitlement, for doing what is right, for having your own way, for fun – all kinds of power, the price of that power and its consequences; these are the swirling themes here.

At various points, as the Roman Consuls and the members of the Forum agitate and argue, the realities of the differing viewpoints about Brexit come clearly into focus, evoking both laughs and shivers of horror. In the insanity of the crazed Catiline, there are echoes of Putin or Kim Jong-un; the entitled but deluded Crassus, whose unstable allegiances and beliefs are masked by his unmoving detachment, summons up Theresa May; there are glimpses of Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn too; and in the wild-eyed, orange coiffured Pompey Senior, the stark awfulness of Trump and his policies startles.

In truth, these touches are gracenotes, shimmering pleasures that waft through the real meat Poulton has put on the bone. The truncated tale of the rise and fall of Cicero, still considered history’s greatest orator, is dense and detailed, a real political bullring in which strutting executioners parade and preen. As Poulton puts it – Sorkin’s The West Wing in togas. Well, sort of anyway.

There are many characters to keep track of, many plots and allegiances to recall, many jealousies and angers to watch and assess, endless intrigue and constant surprise. Poulton juggles all this with brilliantly judged finesse, using scintillating dialogue, and revealing different personalities and motivations for famous historical figures we think we know – mainly, but not just, from Shakespeare. ImperiumSome of this is difficult to adjust to at first, but Poulton ensures it all works in the end. The cleverest device he uses is to create a central narrator figure, a character who can speak plainly to the audience about the reality of Cicero’s world and who can also play his own part in that world. That role, Tiro, Circero’s secretary/amanuensis, is the vital key to both the complexity of the multi-issue narrative and its humanity.

It is through Tiro’s eyes and words that we see the glory of Cicero’s skills, his cleverness with language and thoughts, the savage vanity of Julius Caesar, the unhinged hunger for power of Mark Antony, the smooth viciousness of Octavian, the naughty indecency of Crassus and the true natures, sweet and sour, of hosts of other Romans who cross Cicero’s path. Inevitably, this means that Cicero’s take on the world gets some prominence, but, equally, Tiro proves to be unflinching in his detailing of the flaws of his master.

It’s a true theatrical coup, the notion of Tiro, and Doran runs with it, giving the character just exactly the right degree of stage prominence. Joseph Kloska is miraculous in the role – gentle, subversive, sensible and beguiling. A lesser actor would seek to take the spotlight, but Kloska is smarter than that: he plays the edges, is always present, always in sight, but never overplaying. It’s a beautifully judged performance and Kloska proves to be the backbone of the production.

Peter De Jersey excels as Julius Caesar in probably the performance of his career. This is not the noble warrior familiar from Antony and Cleopatra or from the famous speech in Julius Caesar; it’s not even the god-like creature Robert Graves and Colleen McCulloch wrote about in their novels. No. De Jersey plays a wilder, more driven by power lust, creature who cares not for the people or the country – just himself and his divine delusions. It’s a wonderful characterisation in every way. Delicious to watch.

Imperium

Joe Dixon plays two important roles – the deranged patrician Catiline, a seething ball of contemptuous resentment whose thirst for power nearly undoes Rome (and whose defeat gives Cicero his byline for life) and a louche, slightly desperate Mark Antony, all wild eyes, pouting irascibility. This latter performance is the most surprising of the evening, but it works and the mercurial, malevolent mendacity that Dixon sews into Antony helps put other characters into sharp perspective. His is a towering turn, in both roles, and his Catiline is utterly unrecognisable from his Antony.

David Nicole is vilely aristocratic as the haughty Crassus, and he never flags for a single moment, his face always a mask of superiority and contemptuous arrogance. Later, as Pansa, he is utterly unrecognisable, completely submerged in the role of the dithering consul-elect. Just as impressive is Michael Grady-Hall, as Pansa’ co-consul-elect, the hand-wringing Hiritius and as Cato, the conscience of Rome who opposes Cicero’s excesses. When Tiro tells of his suicide, the moment is genuinely poignant, so richly drawn is the character of the fiery Cato.

Daniel Burke makes a good impression in three smaller roles, but is particularly good as Cicero’s dying servant, Sositheus and as an offhand Gaul called in as a surprise witness during one of many trials; his Viridorix is especially memorable. Eloise Secker is a vibrant performer, making her sensual turn as the omnisexual and incestuous Clodia startlingly real and her power-behind-the-Antony Fulvia a triumph of feminine superiority and guile.

As Pompey, Christopher Saul is vastly enjoyable and Siobhan Redmond makes Cicero’s wife, Terentia, a thoughtful and magnificent support to him. She wears her riches proudly and understandably begrudges him his obstinacy. Jay Saighal is an excellent Decimus, making a lot out of little, and allowing no opportunity to be overlooked. John Dougall is a revelation as a dithering Brutus – the assassination of Caesar is humorous because of its clumsiness. As in life it might have been. Nicholas Boulton, likewise, gives Cassius, and, later, Celer, indiosyncratic personalities that stand out without being tiresome because they do.

Imperium

Building on earlier triumphs at Stratford Upon Avon in Oppenheimer, Cymbeline and King Lear, Oliver Johnstone cements his reputation as one of the young leading lights of the RSC. Imperium marks his ascendency to star unquestionably clear. His Romeo and Hamlet must surely be on the cards, at least if audiences are to be served riches they deserve.

In the first three plays, Johnstone plays Rufus, protege to Cicero. But his allegiance seems doubtful from the outset, and although Rufus admires and respects his tutor, his eyes are always searching for opportunities. In one Court scene, while Cicero is working hard, it is almost impossible not to keep focussed on Johnstone’s Rufus who is watching and judging every move that is made. Eventually, Rufus turns on Cicero and prosecutes him – it’s a bravura turn from Johnstone.

Then, in the second trilogy, Johnstone plays Octavian, and from the very first moment you can see the great God Augustus in his aura. He deals with Julius Caesar smartly and then, in one of the juiciest scenes of the day, he fronts up to Cicero, professing his admiration but keeping his options open. His face is angelic but the threat in his essence is undoubted. Later, when he calls Cicero to account, the air is chilled with vengeance and humiliation. It is impossible to imagine Octavian or Rufus better played than Johnstone achieves here. Layered, masterful performances of true grace and energy.

Almost as impressive is another young star in the making, perhaps more destined for Puck, Orsino and Ariel given the otherness quality he exudes – Pierro Neil-Mee. He plays the under-estimated Clodius in the first trilogy, a bristling, bisexual charmer who betrays his Claudian patrician roots to become a Tribune, the champion of the common folk. He is magnetic and effusive, a riot of sexual energy, long haired exuberance, and eye-fluttering wilfulness. He is an unlikely adversary for Cicero who misjudges him and suffers the consequences. He returns as Octavian’s right-hand man, Agrippa, a study in restrained violence and barely controlled temper, complete with closely shaven head. Again, the two characters are utterly unalike, both real, both extraordinary. Brilliant acting.

ImperiumDespite these terrific performances, and indeed those from the rest of the hard working ensemble who never jar or strike false notes in their roles, although it has to be said that Doran has still not mastered the art of convincing crowd acting, Imperium cannot work without a magnetic and towering performance from the actor in the part of Cicero.

In Richard McCabe, who is hardly ever off stage throughout the six plays, Dorian has struck platinum, not just gold. McCabe’s performance is endlessly inventive, utterly absorbing, and an unqualified success. A sensational achievement.

Harris suggests he was drawn to write his novels about Cicero because the man was “Brilliant, ambitious, lovable, calculating, gossipy, pompous, affectionate, insecure, ruthless, squeamish” and Harris “was drawn to his complexity, his modernity”. McCabe certainly finds all those aspects in his performance, and more. It’s marvellous to watch his gullibility, his elusiveness, his tenderness with his family, his fiery, exciting speeches, and his capacity for vainglorious petulance. His final scenes are impossibly touching, completely enthralling.

The on-stage relationship between McCabe and Kloska is almost musical in its complexity, beauty and rhythm – they are in tune, albeit occasionally dissonant, but as a whole, the partnership is deeply textured, full of grace notes and virtuosic solos, and works as well in reflective slow passages as at urgent tempi. Together, they soar and Imperium thrills constantly as a result.

Doran has assembled an exceptional, if familiar, team for Imperium and each member has outdone themselves. The notion of classical modernity seamlessly infuses all aspects of the physical production. Paul Englishby’s score is sensational: moody, suspenseful, triumphant and delicate as required. It melds perfectly with the action and words, almost filmic in its background effect. The six piece band play magnificently.

Anthony Ward has used three key items to create the world of Cicero’s Forum:  a set of plain steps; a mosaic wall which features a pair of watchful eyes, which might be judging, might be shocked, but are definitely observing everything; and a huge globe which is suspended above the Swan stage and onto which various projections can be displayed as a scene demands. The globe can be blood red to reflect slaughter, golden to reflect power, shattered to reflect broken promises or the state of Rome itself, said or crawling with snakes when prophecies are in play.

Mark Henderson’s lighting design makes the most of Ward’s set design. He is unafraid of using darkness to create mood and he creates wars, orgies, treaties and machinations by clever use of colour and light intensity. Each act ends with a breathtakingly lit staged moment.

Movement and fight scenes are excellently minimalist and full credit to Anna Morrissey and Terry King for that. Ward’s costumes are neither modern nor period, but that difficult-to-pull-off mixture of both. They work extremely well, especially the togas, but also the military outfits, and some great gown work for the female cast. It all knits together perfectly. Claire Windsor’s sound design ices all of the Imperium cake – every shock is genuine, every clatter exact, every nuance of ambient sound exactly as it should be.

It is unthinkable that this theatrical masterpiece will not transfer to the West End, Broadway and beyond. But do anything to see this cast in all their power and glory in the gorgeous Swan Theatre.

Because this is the theatrical event of 2017.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
The Imperium : The Cicero Plays
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.