All roads lead to the Gielgud Theatre for Imperium, an unmissable, two-part epic that brings the world of ancient Rome to life. The tale chronicles the rise of Cicero (Richard McCabe) and the fall of the Roman Republic. Starring as Cicero's slave, Tiro, who also serves as the narrator of the two plays, is Joseph Kloska, a talented English star who is highly prolific in historical period pieces. Kloska has been universally praised for his performance, which has been called both 'magnificent' and 'lively' (WhatsOnStage). We sat down with the charming actor for a lovely Q&A session. Read what he had to say below:
"I am politically motivated and think political engagement can and must make the world a better place." - Joseph Kloska
While certainly a pair, Imperium I and II are standalone plays in their own right. As an actor does that influence your role? Do you draw on material from one part to inform the other or do you treat them as separate pieces?
They certainly work on their own, describing tumultuous events from the life of Cicero over 17 years apart, but I do think about the longer journey through both plays as a single experience for my character, Tiro. He is writing Cicero’s biography and I get to be both inside and outside the events spiralling through the plays. Decisions Cicero makes in the first minutes of Part 1 catch up with him at the end of Part 2. As a narrator, Tiro knows what’s coming, but within the scenes I have to react afresh as Cicero navigates this treacherous world. It’s amazing to witness and I try to use my accumulated experiences through the plays to inform the audience about the stakes, the ironies and the danger of the situations we face. There is certainly closure in each part, and either separately or together, you will get a major slice of one of the most dynamic moments in political history!
Imperium is certainly epic theatre, but it feels incredibly fast-paced. Why do you think this is?
The plays describe a period of history and a world where events were piling on top of one another. The Romans managed to create a system to channel ambition through a political process unfortunately prone to corruption, violence and the whims of ultra-ambitious people. Robert and Mike describe a moment where within a single generation, political reality changed for good, where that violence overthrew all known political structures and “strong men” abandoned democratic processes to wield dictatorial power. We have a lot to get through - and even though the plays seem long, they move very, very quickly as a series of antagonists try to destroy Cicero’s own dreams and ideals.
You’re frequently doing 2 shows in a day and you are on stage every moment of each show. How do you maintain your energy levels when you’re on stage for this long and how do you wind down when you finally leave the stage?
I have to admit - it is pretty exhausting! But doing both shows in one day is incredibly rewarding, getting to chart the full course of Cicero's life. In terms of keeping my energy up, I tend to eat a lot of melon. And my lovely dressing room colleagues Joe Dixon and Peter de Jersey make sure the coffee is ready when I come off at the various intervals! After the show, I would hate to inform my younger self, I go home and sleep, usually via a gin and tonic.
After an incredibly successful run at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Imperium transferred to the West End’s Gielgud Theatre which has more than double the capacity. How has the show changed or been adapted for the new run? How different do the shows seem in the different venues?
The show has certainly evolved since our move to the West End. The Gielgud is much larger than the Swan and Anthony Ward has expanded his design to fit it. I think it feels even more epic - as though just beyond our forum where you watch the play, Rome's backstreets and dark allies extend. The West End audience is certainly very alert to all the political analogies, which with current events (Brexit chaos, the Trump visit) seem ever more pertinent and nearby!
You have been involved in a whole host of political/historical work recently: The Crown, Imperium, the upcoming Peterloo. Is that something you seek out, or has it just happened? And how does playing a real person of historical note differ from a character that is only real on the page?
Ha! Yes, perhaps I have a face for period drama! I'm really not sure why it's been that way, it just seems to be the case. In terms of playing Lord Porchester in The Crown and working with Mike Leigh on the character of Richard Carlile in Peterloo - research is essential, and I do love that part of the job. But I think there is a responsibility to try to find out as much as you can about who you're playing whether they were real or not, and to work with that backstory as you play the character on stage or on film. I must speak to my agent about doing a contemporary romcom.
Is there any period of history or story from history in particular that is of interest to you at the moment?
Well, I love history and I studied it at university. I’m very interested in the American Civil War and later the Civil Rights movement. I really enjoyed the Booker winner Lincoln in the Bardo. American democracy and its tribulations are particularly relevant at the moment, I believe.
I am also fascinated by the culture of early Man 30-40,000 years ago. I travelled to the Caves de Niaux in the French Pyrenees a few years ago and a kilometre inside these dark caves, extraordinary images of hands, horses, birds and other animals have been left on the cave walls, illuminated by flickering flames. I like to think about that moment in human development and how that intellectual and artistic drive contained all the potential for the amazing events of the modern world.
Has being involved in all of these historical/political works had an impact on your personal views of politics? Do you view things through a different lens now?
I am politically motivated and think political engagement can and must make the world a better place. My recent work has reminded me that certain historical patterns do repeat themselves, as tragedy and as farce, that democracy is hard fought for and easily lost, and that we should fight to hold the powerful to account.
Imperium finishes its run on 8 September. Are you jumping straight into another project afterwards, or are you giving yourself some downtime?
I am jumping straight onto an aeroplane with my girlfriend to somewhere hot and next to a beach. I went straight from The Crown into Peterloo and now Imperium, so I could do with a break!
Perhaps we could all do with a break! Which is all the more why you should see Imperium before it's too late. Immerse yourself in a bout of escapism and enter an ancient, compelling story that has withstood the test of time.
Don't be on the wrong side of history and book your tickets now for the best seats in the house!
Purchase your tickets to Imperium I: Conspirator here.
Don't forget to book Part 2 as well! Purchase your tickets to Imperium II: Dictator here.
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