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Theatre Review Imperial decline

An RSC adaptation of Robert Harris's novels about power politics in ancient Rome loses something in translation from page to stage, says GORDON PARSONS

Imperium Parts I and II
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

MIKE POULTON, adapter of Robert Harris’s trilogy of novels narrating the life of the great Roman orator Cicero, clearly recognises the problems anyone dramatising a novel has to cope with.

There's not only often the weight of plot detail involved, he's said, but also the demands on the linear narrative progression in theatre where, unlike in the novels, audiences cannot check back on incidents and characters.

In choosing Harris’s epic historical sequence, Poulton and RSC director Greg Doran also face inevitable comparison with the company’s house dramatist, especially as all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays have been on the main Stratford stage this season.

The drama is structured into six playlets, three in each part, each based on Cicero’s involvement with the various players in the power game. They deal with the Cataline conspiracy and Clodius’s attempts to destroy Cicero, the events around the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the subsequent end of both Cicero and the republic.

During the marathon six-and-a-half hours of both parts, there's a marvellous central performance by Richard McCabe as Cicero, who's onstage most of the time. Yet his efforts and the herculean labours by the 23-strong cast are largely defeated by an intractable task.

Poulton employs Cicero’s secretary/slave as the device to keep the audience in touch with the complexities of his master’s successive political battles to save his beloved Roman republic from power-hungry would-be dictators.

The relationship between Joseph Kloska’s Tiro and his master provide a few moments of respite in a series of legalistic manoeuvrings, punctuated by Cicero’s oratorical triumphs in the senate.

Both Joe Dixon’s Mark Antony — no cunning forum speech-maker but a debauched, wife-dominated swaggerer — and John Dougall’s weak and vacillating Brutus are barely recognisable from Shakespeare’s political enemies.

There are attempts to inject humour into the relentless progression of events. The audience readily recognises Christopher Saul’s bumptious bully Pompey with his bouffant Trump hair and driver’s OK hand signals, but, apart from McCabe’s ability to register subtle mood changes, characterisation is two-dimensional, compensated for by high-decibel delivery throughout.

As a serialised TV production, with a variety of locations and judicious editing, Imperium might hold the  attention. It would enable the grotesque pantomime of political power-play, as demonstrable today as in ancient Rome, to engage the attention more than this worthy but rather static stage treatment.

Runs until February 10, box office: rsc.org.uk

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