Writer: Robert Harris
Adaptor: Mike Poulton
Director: Gregory Doran
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Imperium – “the power of life and death as vested by the state in an individual.” Robert Harris’ trilogy of novels about the life of Cicero is nothing short of a masterpiece, encapsulating over 30 years of Roman politics into the historical thriller format. They are carefully researched, cinematic in construction, richly detailed and epic in scale, something which clearly appealed to the RSC when they premiered in Stratford last year. With a successful double-bill of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell saga Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodiesunder its belt, the RSC’s Imperiumfollows its predecessor to the West End.
The Roman Empire, and particularly the life, death and aftermath of the Julius Caesar story is one of the most exciting in history, one ripe for dramatic interpretation. Harris’ work examines this formative period from the perspective of another famous politician, Cicero, whose writings and experience form the basis of these plays. Part One, Conspirator takes Cicero from his election as Consul to the point years later when his friend and pupil Clodius, by this time a Tribune, calls for his former master’s exile on trumped-up charges. Along the way, many of Circero’s cases, debates and continual brush with the great men of the Roman Republic are relayed.
Mike Poulton’s adaptation combines several themes in a sweeping impression of Roman life but the highs and lows of Cicero’s career were entirely dictated by the interplay of these various factors. First, the tension between the aristocratic privilege and the man of humbler origins who must make grubby deals and compromises to fund his political aspirations. Second, Poulton emphasises the growing power of the mob that will eventually sacrifice the legislative power of the Senate to control the state, and finally, the rise of the militant individual, able to impose their will through victories won and lands conquered in the name of the Empire. All of these elements feed through Part One, growing in importance as the mixing of these various strands presage the cataclysm to come.
Poulton has compressed all of Books 1 and 2 (Imperium and Lustrum) as well as the first section of Book 3 (Dictator) into Conspirator, conflating a huge amount of text, story and concepts to produce a reasonably trim three and a half hours of theatre. Harris’ books, and by extension Poulton’s adaptation, are rather episodic, mixing moments of high drama and national debate with some of Cicero’s day-to-day activities including his law career and family life. The consequence of this is a slightly uneven pace, drawing you into the political machinations of a transforming nation, dwelling on minor detail while rushing over some of the more complex aspects of the novels – a particular issue in the final section of Conspiratordealing with the Clodius fall-out.
The show saves its best work for unpicking the history and motivation of Cicero, whose grasp for power starts to erode his moral rectitude. In this, Richard McCabe is exemplary, giving an impressively controlled and varied performance that charts the growing ambiguity of his tactics. His approach is to begin as a political warrior, noble, dedicated and determined to do good, but soon discovers that real politics is compromise, deals and neutralising your enemies, which, as events play out, McCabe suggest is down to Cicero’s continuing belief in his own purity of intention despite the rather shady practices he begins to employ.
Equally impressive is Peter de Jersey’s Julius Caesar whose early hints of desperation to secure Cicero’s approval hide behind a public show of confidence and surefootedness. We watch as Caesar actively builds his power base to become the commanding figure we know, and when de Jersey is on stage with McCabe the play feels more alive than at any other time. Nicholas Armfield enjoys playing the rogue Clodius while Joe Dixon’s Cataline is an important focus of Cicero’s loathing for much of this section, although few of the secondary characters are more than sketches, least of all the women.
Consciously stagey at times, with Cicero’s secretary Tiro actively addressing the audience, Doran’s production of Conspirator is a faithful if occasionally long-winded adaptation of Harris’ work, harvesting the key scenarios from two substantial novels. Poulton’s work sets the scene very nicely for what’s to come, painting a vivid picture of Roman life and politics – a good grounding for Part Two and for a wider mediation on the individual’s power over life and death.
Runs until 8 September 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan