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Review: Imperium, at Gielgud Theatre

Gregory Doran’s production brings plotting Roman patricians to vivid life in six-hour drama

05 July, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

‘Spectacular’ Imperium at the Gielgud. Photo: Manuel Harlan

MIKE Poulton’s stage adaptation of Robert Harris’s trilogy of novels about Roman lawyer and orator Cicero is a six-hour drama (plus intervals) played over two evenings or a matinee and evening pairing.

That it can grip the attention for so long is due to a spectacular staging, splendid performances, clear exposition and the way in which its political manoeuvring is so like contemporary power struggles.

Imperium meant the power to command as awarded by the State. These plays show a succession of people attempting to seize it while Richard McCabe’s (almost) incorruptible Cicero tries to maintain the rule of law and preserve the Republic. The story is told by Tiro (Joseph Kloska), Cicero’s slave amanuensis and traces his career from his election as consul in 63BC until his death on the orders of the future Emperor Augustus 20 years later.

An ambitious young soldier and senator, Julius Caesar, is already plotting the future but the first big challenge is Joe Dixon’s ruthlessly pantherine Cataline preparing rebellion and Cicero’s murder.

Part II jumps forward to when Caesar has made himself Dictator, his assassination and the rise of first Mark Antony and then Octavian. It’s the period covered by Shakespeare in his play but Peter de Jersey’s Caesar, single-mindedly seeking self glory and Joe Dixon’s undisciplined, dangerous Mark Antony are very different from his characters, while the future is in the hands of Oliver Johnstone’s cool, confident 19-year-old Octavian.

Women and plebeians don’t get much of a look in, but Gregory Doran’s production brings the plotting patricians to vivid life.

It is acted out on a stepped stage overseen by huge mosaic eyes that miss nothing while overhead a great globe spins, sometimes with a map of the known world, sometimes filled with an image that matches the action.

Though Tiro tells his tale in a relaxed and direct way it is filled with drama. You may think you know Roman history but this keeps you on tenterhooks.

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