Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris hugely popular ‘The Cicero Trilogy’ has transferred from the RCS’s home in Stratford to The Gielgud Theatre in an epic production that amounts to seven hours of stage time in two parts.
The Rome of ‘Imperium’ which spans over 25 tumultuous years is naturally heavy on history and as our cheeky narrator points out, character’s called ‘Gaius’ but is buoyed up by contemporary political parallels and extraordinary performances that never tire.

The effervescent Tiro, Cicero’s clever secretary and slave played by Joseph Kloska narrates the vast history, often disapproving of his masters desperation to be in the thick of the political drama but always loyal to him. It’s a delightful performance with just the right number of knowing asides to keep us on side when there’s a little too much exposition or toga slippage for a modern audience.

Richard McCabe gives a remarkably detailed portrayal of Cicero, known to most of us as a great orator and wit but brought to life as a bumbling, insecure yet likeable man, whose triumphs are matched by his personal and public losses.
A self –styled man of the people, without lineage or soldiering to recommend him, Cicero is elected Consul at the start of the play. He believes passionately in old Republican values of good government and the rule of law which are eventually ground to dust through battles and corruption until eventually Julius Caeser, followed by his adoptive heir, impose military dictatorships.

Parallels with modern politics abound, generally and specific. Populism is all powerful, leaders are constantly claiming to be victims of a conspiracy and as Cicero points out to a round of applause from the audience, ‘Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people.’ Then there’s the question of deposing a tyrant without having any plan about what happens next, how to treat terrorists in our own country and if that’s not enough, ‘ Syria, what business do we have in Syria?’

The huge political characters are presented as larger than life, parodic figures – particularly finely tuned in the case of Cataline and Mark Anthony, both played with outrageous bombast by Joe Dixon and beetroot faced Hybrida (Hywel Morgan) who was so drunk he lost his army and didn’t notice. Then there’s Trump, (who’s barely been off the stage in the last couple of years) in the guise of Pompey ‘a petulant child in the body of an ageing man’ played by Christopher Saul.

What makes it more than a potted history is the portrait of a man, from the height of his success until he finally faces death. Although he claims that the purpose of philosophy is to prepare us for death, Cicero ages, he cannot bear to step away from the machinations of power, despite his wife and daughter’s desperation or his secretaries advice. Still believing he can influence the new players on the stage, the dream of a rich man’s retirement - buy a villa and study philosophy – or get drunk and buy big fish named after your enemies - was no match for the lure of Rome.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan