Saturday, 27 January 2018

Theatre review: Imperium Part II: Dictator

The phrase "all political careers end in failure" wasn't coined until the twentieth century (by Enoch Powell of all people,) so Cicero wouldn't have been able to pay it any attention when, in the events at the close of Conspirator, he found himself far from the political heights he'd once scaled. A shame for him, as he might have been able to accept that failure as the end of his career, rather than setting himself up for a much greater fall in the second part of Mike Poulton's Imperium, based on a trilogy of historical novels by Robert Harris. Dictator opens with Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey) enjoying that formal title of dictator, the civil wars of the first play having left the Roman Republic in chaos, and willing to let one strong hand rule it while it tries to reestablish its democracy. Of course, now that he's sole ruler Caesar is unlikely to give up his power in a hurry, and Cicero (Richard McCabe) is brought out of retirement to advise his opponents.

He's blindsided though when the conspiracy, of which he'd been unaware, assassinates Caesar on the steps of the Capitol.


Cicero publicly takes the side of the conspirators, but while his own oratorical skills still hold some sway over the public, they're not enough to offset the assassins' lack of organisation. Dictator essentially covers the same ground as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, but in much more detail and with much fewer heroics from any of the main players. The conspirators Cassius (Nicholas Boulton,) Decimus (Jay Saighal) and most of all Brutus (John Dougall) prove to be ditherers with no plan for what to do after the assassination, their delay in explaining their actions to the people letting Mark Antony rally support.


But Joe Dixon's Antony is no noble Shakespearean hero either; a drunk who only sobers up in time to take advantage of the situation, the real brain behind his actions belongs to his wife Fulvia (Eloise Secker strikingly playing her more Posh Spice than Lady Macbeth.) Once again the story is narrated by Cicero's slave Tiro (Joseph Kloska,) freed at some point between the two plays but with no change to the dynamic between the men. But this time instead of his master's fall it's that of the Republic itself we're following.


The running jokes in these plays have involved Cicero endlessly mentioning his past triumphs, and others cutting him down by bringing up his lack of military experience, and these things become his downfall: He tries to make up for the latter with military strategy he never quite understands as well as he thinks, and the former makes him susceptible to flattery from Caesar's nephew Octavian (Oliver Johnstone, nicely dropping the friendly act for something more calculating once he's got what he wants.) Cicero believes the teenager is his best hope to restore the Republic; the fact that Octavian is better known as the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, shows how far off-base that plan was.


In the end I felt much the same about this second part of Poulton's play as I did about the first: There's a lot that's interesting, especially in the context of how differently things play out than in Shakespeare's version, and McCabe is such a watchable actor he makes you feel for Cicero despite his fatal vanities. Gregory Doran really isn't the director to go to for fireworks and, although there's a few exceptions - some balletic battle sequences and, at last, a glimpse of one of those famed Triumphs - this still falls short of really feeling epic. It's also characteristically sexless, the relationship between Octavian and Agrippa (Pierro Niel-Mee) begging to be explored in more than the coy way it is. So it ends up a bit of an oddity I'm not convinced I'll remember for long, meticulously put-together but without much wow factor.

Imperium Part II: Dictator by Mike Poulton, based on The Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris, is booking in repertory until the 10th of February at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes including two intervals.

Photo credit: Ikin Yum.

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