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Imperium, Royal Shakespeare Company at Gielgud Theatre, review: this Herculean marathon remains chilling pertinent

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 01/07/2018 By Dominic Cavendish, Theatre Critic
a woman sitting on a bench © Provided by The Telegraph © Provided by The Telegraph

Imperium I: Conspirator ★★★☆☆

Imperium II: Dictator ★★★★☆

"All that men do or say dies with them and is blotted out... All that remains of a good man – a good life – is what is written down.” The words of the great Roman orator, lawyer and thinker Marcus Tullius Cicero – as relayed to us, as if from beyond the grave, following his murder at the hands of Mark Antony’s lackeys. 

If you’ve made it as far as this sage sign-off to Imperium, the RSC ’s monumental two-part staging of Robert Harris’s bestselling Cicero trilogy, you’ll probably want to pat yourself on the back just as much as you’ll want to applaud, fervently, the 25-strong ensemble, headed by Richard McCabe, who delivers a Wimbledon men’s final five-set triumph of mental and physical stamina in the leading role. 

Back to back, the marathon entails around six hours of action, much of it packed with the tumultuous intrigue that characterised Rome’s violent transition from Republic to Empire (and the rule of Octavian). You’ll obviously know of the assassination of Julius Caesar – an early high-point in Dictator, the more dramatically satisfying second part of the show.

But what Harris gives you, as filleted by adaptor Mike Poulton with ample lightness of touch, is an encyclopaedia’s worth of context – beginning with Cicero’s career-making prosecution of Gaius Verres in 70BC, which set in intellectual marble the principle that underlay his mission and machinations: the supremacy of the law over the governance of rulers. 

The misgivings I had about this Herculean undertaking last December still stand. Although it’s pacily presented and impressively marshalled, robes and breast-plates a-go-go. Poulton and director Gregory Doran should have been more ruthless with the material; this isn’t another Wolf Hall.

a group of people wearing costumes © Provided by The Telegraph

We feast to bursting on historical fascinations, starve for want of poetry. There’s a lot of trooping up and down stone steps – not much journeying into psychological interiors. “Caveat emptor” I advised at the end of my original review; that applies afresh now that it has transferred to the West End. You don’t need to be a rich as Croesus (or indeed, as you’ll learn here, Crassus) but you’ll pay top denarius for the best seats.

Yet there is, absolutely undeniably, an imperative to see Imperium. It lies in its chilling pertinence. To borrow from Cicero – “Historia magistra vitae est” (History is life’s teacher): the parallels with our autocrat-cursed age are perturbingly plain.  Some topical allusions get hammered home with crowd-pleasing flippancy – there’s a Trump-emulating Pompey, the odd Brexity gag (“Britain – I believe it’s somewhere just beyond Europe,” jibes Joseph Kloska’s Tiro, Cicero’s trusty amanuensis and our frisky guide).

Far more arresting is the stealthy rise of Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (Oliver Johnstone, all glinting, youthful self-possession). McCabe’s garrulous political polymath – wily, shrewd-eyed, often fatigued by the dangerous slog of it all, yet somehow rallying – thinks that he can use this upstart to his own, Republic-restoring ends. The look of disbelief and horror on his face when he realises that he has miscalculated speaks eloquent volumes. 

Until Sept 8. Tickets: 0844 482 5130;  imperiumwestend.com     

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