Review: Imperium: Conspirator and Dictator


The story of Cicero’s part in the fall of the Roman Republic is rarely told in television and theatre. Julius Caesar often eclipses the orator-lawyer, as he does in Shakespeare and HBO’s Rome. Mike Poulton’s gripping two-part adaptation of Robert Harris’ trilogy, however, captures the twists, turns, power-grabs and conspiracies of the time all from Cicero’s unique perspective. This is a story meant for the theatre and the West End transfer of the sold-out Stratford-upon-Avon run is very welcome and not to be missed.

On entering the Gielgud theatre, thankfully air-conditioned on a hot day, audiences were greeted with a brilliantly designed set reminiscent of Ancient Rome: pillars of the characteristic Roman brickwork stood between steps that worked as the seats of the senate house. Above loomed a large orb which, when glowing red, heightened the tension as the planet Mars in scenes of conflict, but stood proud as Jupiter with its rings in the senatorial scenes. These and the two mosaic eyes at the back of the stage evoked the silent watchful gods in the first half but in the second felt as though it was Caesar watching over the chaos created by his assassination and the heir he put in place.

Mark Antony. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

Each part was divided into three acts centring around a historical figure. The first half was about the men who failed to be Caesar: Catiline and Clodius. These two men championed the people against the traditions of the Roman Republic, but were brought low by Cicero after fierce legal confrontation. The first half sets up much of what later becomes Cicero’s tragic fall with Richard McCabe’s strong delivery of the key speeches against Catiline, ‘o tempora, o mores’ sure to delight many Classicists and Latin students.

The second half follows the car-crash unravelling of the Republic by the men who Cicero couldn’t defeat: the rise and assassination of Caesar, Mark Antony’s failed attempt to gain power, and Octavian’s sure and steady rise. It features the infamous Philippics, speeches against Mark Antony, that end up costing Cicero his life. It introduces the future first emperor, Octavian, perfectly played by Oliver Johnstone who appears in white as a princeps charming, in fresh contrast to the fusty world of the Republic. Finally, it characterises Cicero as an old man out of time and place. In scenes between him and the Octavian, he appears almost as a nostalgic and irrelevant pontificating professor complete with black gown.

Both parts were rich and exciting but for different reasons. The first exemplified the raw violence and insecurity of Cicero’s position in Rome and the dangers he constantly faced, while setting him up as a great and respected speaker. Each actor felt a perfect fit for the part but none more so than Richard McCabe who played a superb Cicero delivering spectacular speeches with an Ian Hislop style comedic tone and all the renowned rhetorical tricks, all while giving us a flavour of the vanity for which Cicero is so famous.

Caesar’s triumph. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

Opposite him, Peter De Jersey delivered a brilliant performance as Caesar, strikingly bringing to life flashes of what Cicero calls Caesar’s ‘monstrous depths’ by flitting between mad tyrant and cold power-grabber. In a particularly clever casting move, several actors were recast into different roles in the second half which drew parallels between them. Joe Dixon who in the first half played the violent, raging man of the people Catiline becomes the drunk and brutish Mark Antony while Eloise Secker who played Clodius’ wily sister becomes Fulvia, Mark Antony’s Lady Macbeth wife.

Mike Poulton’s play is very true to the spirit and style of Robert Harris’ books and makes for compelling and exciting viewing. Now that it has transferred to London, it is particularly friendly to a Cambridge student budget. Many seats are available for as little as £13 for each performance and for students aged 16-25, each performance has 20 £5 tickets (10 in advance and 10 on the day). Both parts run until the 8th September so don’t miss out on this fantastic production.

Imperium Parts I-II is on until the 8th September at the Gielgud Theatre, London (closest tubes, Leicester Square/Piccadilly Circus).