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Imperium Part I and II - RSC Review

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All roads lead to Rome for RSC
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is doing for Robert Harris' Cicero trilogy what it did successfully for Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novels - but can it build a sense of Rome's political double-dealings in a day?

Imperium Part II_ Dictator Caesar Photo by Ikin Yum
Imperium is the stage adaptation of Robert Harris' Cicero trilogy. Photo by Ikin Yum

This stage adaptation of the Cicero books titled Imperium comes in two lengthy plays - Part I: Conspirator and Part II: Dictator. They have now opened at The Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon and run side by side until February 10, 2018.

The big-hitters have been drafted in for this major project. First of all, there's the RSC's top man, artistic director Gregory Doran, directing, then there's veteran actor Richard McCabe in the lead role.

Most importantly, there's master adaptor Mike Poulton on board following his sensational adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies at the same theatre in 2014.

To reflect all the intricacies, political treachery and defining characters in Harris' detailed novels isn't an easy job. Poulton has been brutal with the cuts, so the plays get to the nitty gritty and never feel drawn out or slow.

Imperium Part I, RSC, Robert Harris, Cicero, Robert McCabe. Photo by Ikin Yum
Robert McCabe as Cicero. Photo by Ikin Yum

The plays are still pretty lengthy - three hours 15 minutes plus two 15 minute intervals for Part I and three hours 45 minutes plus the same two intervals for Part II. Despite that, they zip along with zest, absorbing all your attention into the dramas of the Roman senate.

The simple but effective scenery stays the same throughout both plays and consists of a large mosaic backdrop with a pair of eyes (symbolic of the watchful nature and gossiping in the corrupt Roman corridors of power). Meanwhile, all the action takes place under a huge globe from which atmospheric lighting and scenes are projected. The globe, in particular, feels state of the art and is a visual spectacular when at full potency.

As with most series, Part I is the more rounded and entertaining of the two with a clear introduction to the characters and pranks with the audience, who are cleverly immersed into the senate by being sat on the stage floor.

Imperium Part I, RSC, Robert Harris, Cicero, Robert McCabe. Photo by Ikin Yum
Joe Dixon is electrifying as both Catiline and later Mark Antony. Photo by Ikin Yum

Imperium Part I: Conspirator is the lighter, brighter more comedic of the two with an excellent rapport between Richard McCabe's Cicero and Joseph Kloska, playing his likeable secretary and narrator Tiro. It's the Thick Of It with an edge of House of Cards set in ancient Rome.

Much of this play is actually the second Lustrum novel in Robert Harris's trilogy using a brief flashback to hurry through the first novel. Its focus is on cunning Cicero's role as Consul and his battle for power against rivals including psychopathic Catiline and a young and ambitious Julius Caesar.

Peter De Jersey plays Caesar with the right amount of sly, smiling temperament but it is the excellent Joe Dixon who steals scenes as crazed Catiline (and again in Part II as Mark Antony). As Catiline, he's a terrifying, raging, uncontrollable bull in the Senate, fired up and blindsided by the red cape of Cicero's intelligence and masterful rhetoric.

Imperium Part I, RSC, Robert Harris, Cicero, Robert McCabe. Photo by Ikin Yum
The RSC's Imperium is atmospheric and gripping. Photo by Ikin Yum

McCabe, a well-known figure from stage, film and television, charms despite embodying Cicero's complex nature as a vain, cunning and conceited politician. Part I also gives an added emotional insight into Cicero's relationships with his family that is lacking in the later play.

Self-promoting himself as "the man of the people", there's obvious similarities to be drawn with modern political times and that's before the Brexit jokes are thrown in and Pompey's uncanny resemblance to Donald Trump. "Don't stare at the hair!" advises one frantic aide to the senators in one of the many funny moments.

Imperium Part I, RSC, Robert Harris, Cicero, Robert McCabe. Photo by Ikin Yum
Peter de Jersey as Caesar with Richard McCabe as Cicero. Photo by Ikin Yum

There seems to be an assumption that those seeing Imperium Part II: Dictator will probably have seen the first part as it moves more or less straight on with the drama. While it's not impossible to watch one without the other, the depth of the characterisations is more heavily developed in Part I.

The focus in the sequel is on Cicero's later life from Julius Caesar's dictatorship to the fallout caused by his infamous murder. As it is based on historical accounts of the time, much of Part II feels like another perspective to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar play.

Where it differs are the political manoeuvrings and ultimate decline of Cicero. There's also some delightfully sinister undertones surrounding the young Octavian, who was later to become the first Emperor of Rome.

For all Cicero's pomp, McCabe's remarkable performance gives the character a worthy pride in fighting to protect "the republic". He manages to make Cicero appear as an honourable politician, albeit with faults, and ensures that the audience is always on his side.

There's no doubt, the Imperium plays are epic, hugely watchable political dramas. It's a huge endeavour and risk to adapt such popular novels to stage, but following on from its Rome season, it is a perfect fit for the RSC. The Imperium plays are guaranteed to be another sure-fire hit.

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Why? See electrifying stage adaptation of Robert Harris Cicero novels
When: Until February 10, 2018
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: £10 - £55
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