This historical drama epic based on the novels by Robert Harris is well worth catching in the West End.
Having just returned home after a lovely holiday in Rome, I found myself back in the Italian city but under very different circumstances to watch this thrilling and engaging Royal Shakespeare Company production.
Adapted beautifully for the stage by Mike Poulton, both parts of Imperium are a masterclass in storytelling, filled with plenty of drama that keeps the audience thoroughly engaged throughout the six and a bit hours. Poulton’s adaptation also highlights the similarities between Ancient Roman politics and the politics of today, revealing the corruption, the betrayal and manipulation that strikingly sounds familiar in 2018 (including making Pompey into a slightly familiar Donald Trump looking character).
Throughout this epic production, Imperium charts the rise and fall of Marcus Tullius Cicero – from his rise to the consul to being exiled during Caesar’s reign, telling his story through the tumultuous Ancient Roman politics, filled with blackmail, jealousy and of course a lot of bloodshed.
There is certainly plenty to admire about both parts of Gregory Doran’s lavish production – not least some of the beautiful scenes that he has created throughout such as Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral or the battle between Mark Antony’s army and those of Hirtius and Pansa (excellently choreographed by Anna Morrissey and Terry King) that cause genuine tingles down the spine. But it is also the way in which Doran has delicately handled the story in a way to allow the characters and underlying threat that they all pose to each other to create an atmosphere that is constantly intense and gripping.
Of course, there is a lot of talking and it is possible to become slightly confused in places about who is who (particularly in Dictator where numerous cast members are playing different ones from Conspirator) that you do find yourself checking the programme to remind yourself who everyone is. It also means that there is very little action as a lot of what happens does take place out of view that might make it frustrating to watch for some audience members expecting perhaps elaborate battle scenes – but this is a story and production that is subtler than that and doesn’t need embellishments.
But what keeps the audience thoroughly interested and engaged is the variety of fascinating characters and the way in which their relationships with each other constantly change – particularly with Cicero at the centre of proceedings. This is captured brilliantly by many of the strong performances given by the cast.
Richard McCabe as Cicero offers an intelligent and extremely detailed performance as a character who is extremely knowledgeable but pompous as his numerous references to the way in which he defeated Catiline suggest. There is a variety of ways in which the audience constantly react to his character: on the one hand he is irritatingly stubborn and not clear sighted enough to see potential problems, whereas on the other he is intensely loyal to Rome and its people. McCabe develops his character well to the point where you aren’t quite sure if Cicero’s intentions are for Rome or in fact for himself – it is nicely balanced.
But he has plenty of excellent support surrounding him. From Joseph Kloska’s intensely loyal and immensely likeable Tiro (the moments in which he narrates what is happening are particular highlights), Joe Dixon’s immensely dislikable and arrogant characterisations of Mark Antony and Catiline as well as Peter de Jersey’s powerful and commanding performance as Julius Caesar – there is plenty of performances to enjoy.
For those still in doubt whether to see Imperium or not, it is not at all heavy despite the nature of the story, there are plenty of moments that make the audience laugh and breaks the tension even briefly throughout that make it enjoyable. But I do recommend you see both parts on the same day so not to break up the flow of the story.
Imperium is a powerful production of a story that is strikingly relatable to audiences watching it in 2018. A brilliant and lavish production – highly recommended.
By Emma Clarendon