Imperium I: Conspirator at the Gielgud Theatre
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Robert Harris’s epic novel comes to the West End’s Gielgud theatre, after a sell-out run in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Adapted into two plays – Conspirator and Dictator – by Mike Poulton, the grand saga is what one might expect from a novel set in Ancient Rome: ambitious, enlightening and extensive.
The historical drama relates the public life of Rome’s greatest orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and his rise to power, a man who proudly repeats how he “was elected by the unanimous vote of the Roman people”. With an exceptional performance from Richard McCabe, Cicero is presented as an affable yet deeply egocentric senator, making various secret deals to suit him. Managing to keep his head above water for the most part, the statesman successfully keeps conspirator Catiline’s rebellion at bay (played to intimidatingly dramatic effect by Joe Dixon). With the help of his slave and adviser, Tiro (Joseph Kloska), the orator remains in power, though many try to overthrow him. Kloska provides comic relief, with asides and commentaries – during Tiro’s introduction, McCabe cuts in saying, “very expositional”, to energetic laughter. The State of Rome and its politicians are applicable to the current political climate; it is no coincidence military leader Pompey Magnus is fashioned after American president Donald Trump. Christopher Saul even goes as far as to make Trump’s hand gesture, and is described as “a petulant child in the body of an ageing clown”.
The discovery of a sacrificed young boy takes the play into dark depths, where investigations are carried out regarding the death. Catiline, unable to accept the election results, is intent on a coup to overthrow the statesman, but ultimately fails. Julius Caesar (Peter de Jersey) attempts for power too, exhausting the financial help of Crassus, “the richest man in Rome”. The drama reveals the triumphs and tragedies Cicero experienced as a Republican Senator.
Anthony Ward provides a timely set and costume design, the stage depicting Rome’s ancient splendour: a large golden ball balances above. where images are projected, behind which loom wide eyes made of mosaics. Thrilling atmosphere is produced by composer Paul Englishby’s music, which builds with thunderous drums and trumpets, like in the ceremonial scene of the Vestal Virgins. Voice coach Kate Godfrey succeeds in making the politicians sound convincing, particularly Catiline, Caesar, as well as Nicholas Boulton’s Celer and Simon Thorp’s Catulus – all perfectly inflected. Though men dominate the production, Siobhán Redmond gives a commendable performance as Cicero’s commanding wife, Terentia.
Split into three parts, Cicero, Catiline, and Clodius, including two 15 minute intervals, the performance can feel lengthy and wordy for newcomers, with names sounding alike, making the story sometimes challenging to follow; but, ultimately audiences will leave having absorbed a little Ancient Roman politics. Poulton achieves a remarkable feat, refining the essential elements of Harris’s epic, while producing a real feel for the famous orator and his contemporaries.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Imperium I: Conspirator is at the Gielgud Theatre from 14th June until 8th September 2018. Book your tickets here.
Watch the trailer for Imperium here: