Though a fan of Robert Harris’s fiction, I have to confess that I’ve not read his Cicero trilogy. That’s probably because I had insufficient exposure to Cicero during the many years I did Latin at my Kentucky high school. (Indeed, I have the impression that my father, at more or less the same schools, was much better grounded in the classics.) Of course, I’ve had to translate snippets of Cicero for the several Latin exams an American student has to take on the way to the PhD, but I was ignorant of the details of the life of the greatest orator of them all. So I was happy to subject myself to nearly seven hours of sitting in the arm-rest-free seats of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon for the many, many hours it takes to Imperium Mike Poulton’s two-part adaptation of three Harris books in a single day.
Under Gregory Doran’s direction the actors pop up all over the small house. But most of these stage effects can be achieved in the larger, more comfortable, Stratford auditorium (currently hosting A Christmas Carol); why, I wondered aloud to my wife, didn’t the RSC stage this marathon double-header there? My wise wife, who has more Latin (and sometimes commercial sense) than I, pointed out that “Cicero would never fill the seats in the larger house.”
Comfortable it was not, though we had Row D ground floor seats with extra leg-room. The “Visitors,” for whom the staff told me they had shut off one of the disabled loos, appeared to be seated at the back of the ground floor, in less agreeable seats than ours. The identity of the mysterious visitors was not in much doubt: I spotted one black Range Rover with its engine running on the apron directly in front of the revolving-door entrance on the river side; several more parked nearer the river; and the place was heaving with well-groomed security people standing as unobtrusively as they could manage near every entrance. I thought (but am not certain) I caught a glimpse of Camilla’s hair as the party swept out the door. “What wonderful irony,” I laughed with the celebrated war historian and former national newspaper editor sitting to my left, “the royals have come to see a play about the restoration of the republic.”
While complaining about the seven-hour ordeal, I should acknowledge that, during the two hours between plays, we had a great martini, decent wine, and a good dinner in the RSC’s Rooftop restaurant. How did Cicero, played by Richard McCabe, find the stamina for his stellar performance? He is almost never off the stage, in Part I, “Conspirator,” which recounts chiefly the Catiline conspiracy, or in Part II, “Dictator,” which takes the story through Julius Caesar’s assassination through the victory and accession of Octavian. He speaks more words than I think I’ve ever heard from a single actor – many of them, my Cicero-savvy wife points out, translations, or derived from his actual orations. How can anyone commit that much material to memory? I am in awe of McCabe’s memory – but also of his achievement in delivering these many speeches and famous lines (“O tempora! O mores”), in low-key translation, without bombast, and with minimum rhetorical flourish. If it seems peculiar that the most celebrated rhetor in history eschews much of the dramatic effect of his words, it is probably (as my wife again avers) because “he’d wipe the rest of the actors off the stage.” So, good for Mr McCabe and Mr Doran.
Mr Poulton, who also adapted the Hilary Mantel novels for Wolf Hall (which I have to confess to enjoying a tad more), has made Tiro, Cicero’s real-life secretary, into an occasional narrator, who breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience who’s who, who’s done what, and how things are going to end. He also editorialises a bit, and has all the funniest jokes. I particularly enjoyed it when Tiro (played with aplomb and good humour by Joseph Kloska) remarks that “losing one Consul is unfortunate; losing two is …” and the audience finishes the Wildean quotation for themselves. But there is nothing careless about this production.
Most of the really evil characters echo Donald Trump. Catiline (Joe Dixon, made-up to look really scary), Cicero’s “aristocratic rival,” has a Trumpian sense of entitlement, his narcissism compounded by his ignorance. Pompey, the conquering general, has a ridiculous-looking Donald Trump wig, and makes the sinister but comic O-gesture of the Donald’s wee hands. In the second play Joe Dixon is Mark Antony, whose nasty populism is as dangerous as the Donald’s. Peter de Jersey is strangely handsome as Julius Caesar in both plays, and Cicero comes to recognise that sparing Caesar the garrotte – for his part in the Catiline conspiracy – was his worst mistake.
Perhaps, though, Cicero made an even greater mistake in believing Octavian really did mean to restore the republic. Oliver Johnstone plays Caesar’s adopted son as a pretty, bisexual, seemingly sincere 19-year-old, too young for treachery. The scene in which he reveals to Cicero that he has Trumpian delusions, and believes he is a god (son of the gorgeous Apollo, of course) is magnificent.
The actors are uniformly excellent in both plays, and the “creatives” superb. Designer Anthony Warner’s simple sets have a kind of splendour (enhanced by Mark Henderson’s lighting) and his Roman costumes include particularly comfortable-looking togas, peplums and sandals. The one battle scene is pleasingly balletic; and composer Paul Englishby’s live music is apt. The over-all noise level is a little high for such a small space. I’m glad I left my hearing aids at home.
Is there a warning for us in Imperium? Of course there is – though it’s not so much that we face the threat of the republic being overthrown, and a dictator running the show. Our problem is more the danger of the Leges Clodiae, when Cicero’s patrician protégé-turned-enemy, Clodius, got himself converted into a plebeian so that he could be elected Tribune of the Plebs, and passed laws allowing fascist mobs to flourish. Is there an analogy between the Clodians and the Brexiteers? I think probably, yes. But there is a definite and stronger link between the Roman mob and the festering, undereducated American electorate that put Trump in office, and allows him to continue in it.