In 2014, Mike Poulton adapted Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The result was a huge success, garnering such plaudits as ‘As in Mantel’s book, you feel this is history made manifest’ (Michael Billington, The Guardian) and ‘an adaptation that knows exactly when to speak and when to stay silent and by performances that show the RSC’s ensemble strength at its best’ (Sarah Crompton, The Telegraph).
When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced that Poulton would adapt Robert Harris’s The Cicero Trilogy –of which Imperium is the first book- eyebrows were raised in some quarters, including my own. It was an exciting idea but would Poulton, director Gregory Doran and the RSC be able to encompass the sheer scope of the trilogy? I am happy to report that in the main, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”
However, using a phrase like ‘in the main’ suggests some negatives to arise so I’ll get one of them out of the way first. I find it an understandable shame –but a shame nonetheless- that much of the first novel, dealing with the rise of the young Cicero, is discarded. As it is, whilst a certain basic knowledge of Ancient Rome is thus desirable, Poulton thoughtfully includes a flashback to demonstrate one of Cicero’s early Senate triumphs. In Richard McCabe’s energetic, charismatic (and at that point) young orator, we are allowed a glimpse of what is more satisfyingly set out in the book. A stage adaptation cannot of course give us everything and what we actually have is still mightily impressive.
The very titles, Imperium Part I: Conspirator and Imperium Part II: Dictator announce the sheer scope of this Royal Shakespeare Company achievement. The Trilogy of novels becomes two plays, each split into three parts; some seven hours of theatre. My feeling is that –whilst two intervals in each play have been justified by the focus in each part on one character- the flow of each performance is hampered…we simply don’t want or need a break after about an hour. I found it somewhat tiresome and perhaps that in itself points to the quality and intensity of the adaptation, combined with the breadth and concentration of the production.
Gregory Doran’s simple and effective production is pacy, dramatic, knows when to linger and when to “get on with it” and is altogether satisfying – one of the best things he has done with his company. The intimate Swan Theatre with the close proximity of the acting area to the audience on each level (no raised stage this time but a floor on the level of the first rows of the Stalls), literally forces us –in the nicest and least-tiresome way- to become senators and people of Rome. Anthony Ward’s designs present the story in a simple space. Aided by Mark Henderson’s effective lighting design, a moving flight of stairs can –for example- become the Senate, the Atrium of a patrician’s house, or a battlefield.
Richard McCabe commands the tricky role of Cicero completely, effectively encompassing some forty years with drama, humour, irony and ultimately, as a frail Cicero moves inexorably towards his fate, heart-rending pathos. I have never seen McCabe so commanding. Joseph Kloska supports him beautifully as Tiro, Cicero’s slave, then friend and advisor. Kloska’s character is the narrator, both of the books and of the adaptation, allowing the actor good reason to interact with the audience. Kloska’s timing and engaging humour are perfect here, carefully avoiding the pitfalls awaiting the unsuspecting show-host who tries too hard [fill in your names of choice…]. Engaging, both seriously dramatic and comic as necessary – and like any fine comic actor- he doesn’t overplay that link with us. Continuing with the theme of comedy, one might suggest that at times this pair embodies the diverse worlds of Morcambe and Wise, Smith and Jones or even French and Saunders!
The rest of the cast is almost –note ‘almost’- uniformly excellent. Peter de Jersey is a dark, brooding, believable Caesar who becomes totally caught up in his own magnificence. Poulton’s achievement here –aided of course by actor and director- is to allow a different, perhaps more complex and multi-faceted version of the character as delivered by Shakespeare. This he also does with Marc Antony, whose funeral oration is delivered with growing confidence –but in this version ratcheted up to the point of uncomfortable audience-identification- by Joe Dixon, who also impressed earlier as the rebel Cataline. Later however, Dixon’s Antony is seriously hampered by an almost perpetual and overplayed “drunk-act”; unbelievable and annoying and unworthy of both a fine actor and director. An amusing modern link is made with a purposely caricature-boastful Pompey, played with relish by Christopher Saul as Donald Trump, complete with wig and comments from the Senators (“Don’t mention the hair!”) – well, Pompey was a Republican…say no more!
Amongst the rest of the impressive ensemble, Siobhan Redmond, Eloise Secker, Nicholas Boulton, John Dougall and Oliver Johnstone are outstanding.
This was certainly a splendid pair of plays, well-worthy of the Harris trilogy and highly recommended!
Richard Inverne is Senior Lecturer in Acting and Performance at Southampton Solent University and for over four years was Course Leader of Comedy Writing and Performance. He specialises in history, theory and analysis of the Performing Arts. Richard ran his own theatre company and headed a children’s theatre for many years, as well as owning and running a video production firm, specialising in commercial, promotional, training and educational projects. For several years was music and theatre critic for Plays and Players magazine. Occasionally guest-lectures at University of Southampton on stage and screen subjects. He was invited to contribute an article for The Historian magazine on Shakespeare’s Henry V on screen, specifically for the Agincourt celebratory issue. Richard is currently investigating the dynamic between Shakespeare in live performance versus its ‘Live in HD’ counterpart.