Perhaps Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran got it into his head to direct William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar again. He had directed the classic history-tragedy for the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012, setting it in modern Africa. Perhaps he wanted to give the Bard favorite another radical spin and decided the way to achieve that was not to do Shakespeare’s version at all.
Instead, he’d work with novelist Robert Harris on an adaptation of his Cicero Trilogy (Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator) in which Julius Caesar’s assassination is scoped from a different perspective—no “et tu, Brute,” for one instance, and, for another, Cicero’s dominating presence, which is virtually a cameo as the Bard sees it.
So the always intelligent and trenchant Doran approached Mike Poulton, who’d acquired acclaim for having adapted Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies into the two-part stage Wolf Hall. Poulton has come up with the two-part (at 3 hours 10 minutes and 2 hours 45 minutes) Imperium I: Conspirator and II: Dictator, which, oddly enough, skips over Harris’ Imperium novel to concentrate on Lustrum and Dictator.
The imposing result is an irresistible production that for the most part goes by lickety-split. Only intermittently during the bordering on six-hour opus does it slow to the sincere and steady as it determinedly concentrates on Cicero (Richard McCabe), who refers to himself with false modesty as only “a lawyer.” Actually, this Cicero is well aware of his status as the age’s foremost orator. More than that, he’s equally confident he’ll remain an exulted orator long past his lifetime—to which Imperium attests with bravura.
Importantly, the reason Cicero’s lavish speeches have endured—today we’d say he poured it on—is that he was lucky in his amanuensis. Tiro (Joseph Kloska) was creative enough to develop a shorthand that enabled him to transcribe his master’s every floridly salient word. (Tiro was a slave whom Cicero eventually freed.)
As Tiro does in the Cicero novels, he’s the ubiquitous Imperium narrator. At times he’s in awe of Cicero and just as often red with frustration, not unlike any servant exposed to a beloved employer’s every move. Tiro is an astute judge of character. It’s not only in the notebook he stores in his satchel that he records every event. He’s also recording them mentally.
That’s Harris’ menacingly gallant tale and, of course, Poulton’s. It’s the story of a man who orated and pontificated wisely but not well. Cicero had vaulted to prominence slowly but steadfastly (the stuff of the trilogy’s first novel) and eventually succeeded in becoming consul, a position he held only for a while.
But his belief in himself convinced him he could manipulate his aspiring associates, which include Gaius Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey), Pompey (Christopher Saul), Marc Antony (Joe Dixon, doubling as the boisterous Catiline), Brutus (John Dougall), Cassius (Nicholas Boulton), Octavian (Oliver Johnstone), Cato (Michael Grady-Hall), Agrippa (Nicholas Armfield), a group of hooded vestal virgins, and—if you’re familiar with the history of Rome during the years 100-40 BCE—you can name others.
There are also Cicero’s long-abiding wife Terentia (Siobhan Redmond), the daughter on whom he dotes Tullia (Jade Croot), and Mark Antony’s scheming and very rich wife Fulvia (Eloise Secker), who longs for Cicero’s head. (Cleopatra is mentioned but doesn’t show up either wrapped in a rug or not wrapped in a rug.)
Poulton’s achievement—with an obvious nod to Harris—is the three-dimensional presentations he gives these shadows from a grave past. He sticks prominently to Cicero, of course, whose superb qualities are constantly on display. Unfortunately, when the great man overestimates them, they’re what undo him—but only after his getting himself in and out of binds several times over the charged years.
Dervishing around him, thanks to Harris and Poulton, are a two-faced, loathing and loathsome Julius Caesar; a Mark Antony forever brutally drunk; a Brutus who has trouble committing to any kind of sustained action; a 19-year-old but precocious Octavian; and a jealous and disappointed Cassius (who may be the closest to any of Shakespeare’s figures), and a score more dazed Romans looking rapaciously for the main chance.
Poulton’s intent, as it is Harris’ in the bestselling novels, is to excoriate corrupt government, the assumption being that throughout the centuries and millennia one constant has been governments seething with immoral motivations. These Roman soldiers and senators crave power and are above nothing in their hunger to acquire it.
To prevail when he thinks the republic he cherishes is threatened, even Cicero compromises his scruples on at least one crucial occasion. Most of the time, however, he knows what he’s talking about. At one point, he suggests nominating someone widely thought to be stupid for a vaunted position. Challenged about that, he replies, “Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people.” (The wisecrack received the biggest laugh of the two parts. I wondered if the audience included a large number of Americans.)
What Doran is after and what he succeeds at presenting is a torrid, frenetic world. He does it on set and costume designer Anthony Ward’s series of steps rising under the eyes of a stage-wide mosaic. Everything from Julius Caesar’s triumphal return to Rome to the intimate confines of Cicero’s home occurs within that large space. Doran is also aided by his usual experts: Mark Henderson with his kaleidoscopic lighting, Claire Windsor with her unabashed sound design, and Paul English with his various melodic themes.
Watching the two-part Imperium is the equivalent of draining a large cup of cynicism. By the finale when Cicero delivers a speech about “the slow embrace of time,” the effect is having become inebriated with, but not uncomfortably besotted by, the perils of man’s and woman’s inhumanity to man and to woman.
Imperium I: Conspirator II: Dictator opened June 30, 2018, at the Gielgud Theatre (London) and runs through September 8. Tickets and information: rsc.org.uk