Imperium is a historical thriller, following Cicero’s attempts to navigate the immoral political landscape of Ancient Rome and protect his much-loved republic from conspiracies and dictatorships. Adapted from the popular Cicero Trilogy novel by Robert Harris, Imperium is a vast, ambitious undertaking, spanning seven hours across two parts.
The show’s narrative is complex and detailed, delving into all the intricacies of politics’ ever-changing shifts in power. Mike Poulton’s adaptation handles this with ease and, as in the novel, uses Cicero’s servant, Tiro, as a narrator to help guide you through any moments that could become overwhelming; there are many characters at play in this production and sometimes the helping hand is much appreciated.
The initial part of the show, Conspirator, is slow to find it’s feet but, once it picks up the pace, is an engaging political study of the time. As the production goes into its second half, it does a great job of highlighting the parallels with current political affairs. This is never clearer than with the character of Pompey, who is portrayed as a Roman Donald Trump. They do well not to hit this point too hard; bringing out the comedy without it becoming a cheap send-up that may feel out of place in this period production.
The design of the show is fittingly epic. A giant globe hangs above the action and is projected onto throughout, becoming a glowing red moon or sinister ball of fire. It’s a constant symbolic beacon of power and dominance. The main performance space is surrounded by stone steps which conjure up images of a roman forum while avoiding forcing any particular location on the space, allowing the action to move quickly between different locations. The music is epic; fan-faring each character’s arrival and sending echoing thuds throughout the auditorium. It certainly sounds spectacular, but at times highlights the lack of visual drama taking place on stage. There are points where a more subtle sound design might fit better with the pace of the production, which is, for the most part, fairly slow. Costumes are a mixed bag, with beautiful period dress throughout, scattered with bizarre nods to the modern day; not enough to make a clear point and yet enough to draw the eye to its oddities. In one dramatic scene, regal gold masks with white togas are thrown off by the inclusion of placards that look more akin to a ‘Horrible Histories’ production.
Gregory Doran’s direction is slick and efficient throughout. He’s clearly made the choice to focus on the intricate dialogue instead of the action of the piece. This leads to a very sanitised vision of Rome, with murders taking place just out of sight and nudity, which is written into the script, shied away from. Ancient Rome has never looked so clean and conservative. Although this decision does put the focus squarely on Cicero’s oratory skills, over such a long production, some much-needed action feels missing.
The cast perform with great stamina throughout, ever circling the strong central performance from Richard McCabe as Cicero. McCabe’s performance is confident and assured, tackling the characters ageing process with skill and dignity. His delivery of the language is so precise, it’s really not difficult to see how Cicero could have acquired so much respect with just his words. A stand out performance is given in the second half by Oliver Johnstone as Octavian. He brings a quiet arrogance and strength to the character which is totally unnerving. His presence is magnetic and dominates the latter half of the production. Female characters are less well drawn serving mostly as emotion collateral for the leading men. Eloise Secker seizes her opportunities with gusto and provides some much-needed grit to the women she portrays. Most of the cast play more than one part over the two plays and there are several occasions when the decision is made to play characters with more than a hint of camp. It’s an unusual choice which, whilst not hindering the production, does feel somewhat out of place.
This production makes no secret of the fact that it favours political speeches over political bloodshed but, with such a long run time, there are many wasted opportunities to engage the audience on more than just an intellectual level.
Review by Dan Reeves
Following their acclaimed sell-out season in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s IMPERIUM plays, based on the bestselling Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris, transfer to London’s Gielgud Theatre for a strictly limited season from Thursday 14th June.
Told through the watchful eyes of Cicero’s loyal secretary, IMPERIUM I: CONSPIRATOR chronicles how the great orator’s early success unwittingly paves the way for a brutal and bloody end to the Republic.
With Rome in chaos at the beginning of IMPERIUM II: DICTATOR, Cicero must use all his brilliance to restore the power of the Senate from the civic mob and their would-be Emperor: one Julius Caesar.
Featuring Olivier and Tony Award-winner Richard McCabe (The Audience) as Cicero and Joseph Kloska (The Crown, RSC’s Written on the Heart) as Tiro, audiences can choose to enjoy the plays, from RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran and adapted by Mike Poulton (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), as one riveting theatrical event or two unmissable historical thrillers.
BOOKING PERIOD: Until 8th September 2018
PERFORMANCE TIMES: Monday – Saturday 7.00pm and Wednesday & Saturday 1.30pm
RUNNING TIME: 3 hours 40 mins including two 15 minute intervals.
GIELGUD THEATRE, SHAFTESBURY AVENUE, LONDON, W1D 6AR