Writer: Robert Harris
Adaptor: Mike Poulton
Director: Gregory Doran
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
“How do you conquer Rome with no weapon other than your voice?” Cicero wonders in Robert Harris’ novels about his life, the interplay between politics and war dominated the Roman state in the years surrounding the assassination of Julius Caesar. With a rapidly expanding Empire hard won by men who waged campaign after campaign, balancing the ideas of liberty and democracy by Senate and the people became increasingly difficult to sustain. The second part of the RSC’s Harris adaption, based solely on the final novel Dictator, pits the Politician against the General, proving emphatically that the sword is mightier than the pen after all.
At the end of part one, Cicero was about to go into exile having been publicly denounced by his former friend. By the time of Dictator, years have passed, and Julius Caesar has defeated his enemies, installing himself as sole leader and declaring himself a God. Riled by his meteoric rise, members of the Senate plot his death and in his place division and dissent leads to civil war. In the midst of all this, Cicero returns to public life hoping to influence the shape of the new government, throwing in his lot with Caesar’s heir Octavian. But as his judgement fails, just who is really the dictator of Rome?
Harris’ final book is a fascinating study of power and corruption. Poulton’s adaptation places Cicero’s character under a microscope as events reveal a man living on past glories and no longer able to read and interpret the will of the nation. More finely tuned than part one, Dictatoris a play in constant forward motion, driving its characters to their almost inevitable end.
Once again, it is the spectacle of Gregory Doran’s production that is most striking, and while fewer scenes take place in the Senate, there are some vibrantly-staged set-pieces including Caesar’s early Triumph, his subsequent funeral in which the gold-decked spirit of the former leader rises from the afterlife and calls for vengeance, and an exciting (if brief) military clash between Mark Anthony and those seeking to bring him to heel. Terry King’s choreographed fight scenes are well-timed to rejuvenate the story after almost six hours, while Mark Henderson’s lighting and Anthony Ward’s costumes suggest the full glory of Roman ritual, making these scenes a particular high point.
Despite the faster pace and tighter story-telling, the episodic structure remains with some flabby sections that push the show beyond its three hour and ten-minute runtime. Where Cicero’s family dimension felt integral to his rise and sustenance in Conspirator, here they feel peripheral to the grand story of Rome. Likewise, Tiro’s brief sojourn in the country might be accurate and faithful to Harris’ story, yet both feel somewhat superfluous against the press of the major plotlines, especially when the conclusion to a lot of the drama left over from part one is dispatched in a quick Tiro monologue which slightly cheats the audience of seeing it.
Visibly aged and increasingly frail as events play out, Richard McCabe’s Cicero is a tour de force, a detailed study in the evolution of pomposity and the desperation to cling to power, as well as a deluded belief in an influence that has long-since waned. Again and again, McCabe shows us Cicero making the wrong choice and paying the price by unleashing greater torments for Rome by his meddling. He refuses to listen to counsel and, as he is frequently reminded, his lack of military experience reveals itself as a naivety that is not entirely pitiable. There’s no fool like an old fool McCabe implies and his power-hungry Cicero draws an interesting comparison with Julius and Octavian Caesar in his lust for control.
Joseph Kloska as Tiro has far more to contribute in part two, now a freedman and able to argue with his former master. It’s never quite explained why he doesn’t age along with everyone else but Kloska remains a friendly and engaging guide for the audience. Oliver Johnstone’s Octavian charts a similar path to Peter de Jersey’s Julius Caesar, humble and eager to learn at first but increasingly remote, commanding and even cruel as his own power increases.
Joe Dixon’s Mark Anthony is a bit of a puzzle, and while he reflects Harris’ suggestion of a drunk and thuggish man guided by his much smarter wife, it’s hard to reconcile the slightly panto performance with the strategic Mark Anthony who inspired legions to victory long before he married, outwitted the conspirators who killed Caesar with inciteful eloquence at the funeral and became the tragic lover of Cleopatra in the future. Dixon’s approach is fresh and often funny, but it doesn’t quite ring true.
Cicero’s words have survived him, but they couldn’t save him, and Dictatoris a clash between oratorical influence and sharper persuasions. Across the two plays, the decline and chaos of the Roman state as it transitioned from democracy to rule by a single individual feels substantial, while the military dictatorship that followed is a testament to the unquenchable ambitions of men to hold dominion over one another. As the story of Cicero’s life suggests, real tragedy is “the ineluctable consequences of a deed done by a great man for honourable motives.”
Runs until 8 September 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan