Having made his name as a lawyer prosecuting a corrupt former Consul, Cicero eventually rises in popularity to the extent that he is elected to that position himself by a unanimous popular vote - something he never tires of reminding everyone.
His victory makes an enemy of the man he defeated, thuggish nobleman Catiline (Joe Dixon,) whose lineage he believes makes the job his birthright. Catiline himself wouldn't be much of a danger to the new Consul, but he has powerful supporters including a man who's been quietly making a name for himself as a champion of the common people - Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey.) In his year in power Cicero has to root out the conspiracy to overthrow him, while coming across as the alternative to the old, corrupt ways of running the Empire. But in the process he all too easily picks up the underhand tactics he's condemned in others (the fact that, even when he is playing by the book, the system he's fighting to preserve is built on slavery, means this isn't a conflict with a side to cheer for.)
Opening with the discovery of a murdered slave, Conspirator kicks off like a whodunit but it's more of a political thriller at heart, its characters making and breaking alliances constantly. It's probably best typified by Cicero's pupil Rufus (Oliver Johnstone,) who's definitely a spy although nobody's entirely sure on whose behalf. McCabe is understated in the title role, maintaining a distance and allowing us to make our own judgements on his character. There's a typically strong supporting cast, notably Siobhan Redmond as Terentia, the wife whose wealth built Cicero's political career.
Poulton uses humour to stop the story getting bogged down in political history - it's a little moment, but I liked Nicholas Boulton's Chief Augur making grandiose prophecies while his servant (Jay Saighal) looks utterly fed up behind him. But the contemporary parallels have been done a bit too heavy-handedly even before Christopher Saul's Pompey arrives wearing Donald Trump's hair. And Gregory Doran's production lacks a bit of the pomp and spectacle of Rome's wealthiest - exemplified by a Triumph parade that's important to the plot but only ever described, not seen. Above Anthony Ward's design is a huge sphere hanging from the ceiling - video is sometimes projected on it but not to enough impact to justify how much it dominates the visuals, especially from the galleries where it's pretty much just in the way at times.
Despite his skills as an orator - he's portrayed as having a very modern, chatty and charming style - Cicero's main talent seems to be making enemies, and even his attempts to stay on the side of honour tend to backfire: Refusing to save a former friend in trouble comes back to haunt him when Clodius' (Pierro Niel-Mee, oddly specifically typecast in Mike Poulton plays as a flasher,) fortunes change and he's elected Tribune. So by the end of the first part Cicero has fallen far from grace, and hopefully the second play will close the story in a satisfying way. Helped by a three-act, two-interval structure that breaks the story up into easily digestible hour-long chunks, the lengthy running time never drags, but I did feel the lack of a sense of event I'd have expected from a project this ambitious.
Imperium Part I: Conspirator 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 40 minutes including two intervals.
Photo credit: Ikin Yum.