The question, upon seeing that Imperium is a two-part story, is whether you need to see both parts. I understand you have no money, no time and yes both parts are over 3 hours, however, I would argue both for and against seeing both parts. Part I and Part II feel quite contained as stories with Part I focusing on the conspiracy against Richard McCabe’s Cicero and Part II focusing on life after Julius Caesar but I would argue both parts need to be seen for the development of Cicero as a man, an orator and as someone who gives warmth to a cold period of history full of scandal, sex and backstabbing.
I’ve chosen to review them separately because whilst they are coherent productions there are some important developments in both stories which shape how the productions end up. This is a review of the first part of Imperium, be sure to check out my review of the final part here.
Imperium I: Conspirator
We don’t really get Roman epics on the stage much anymore and who can blame any writer for avoiding the subject. Do you go all controversial like The Romans in Britain (1980) or do you find yourself constantly compared to I, Claudius? Mike Poulton is a brave and skilled man, he’s adapted Hilary Mantel’s epic books Wolf Hall and Bring Out the Bodies for the stage and now he is tackling Robert Harris’ Imperium trilogy in this two-part production, originally produced at the RSC.
Richard McCabe is Cicero, a man of low standing but high intelligence (he’s a lawyer and in the senate) who happened to marry rich, Terentia (Siobhan Redmond). HIs election to counsel is expensive and he’s made a few enemies along the way, such as Catiline (Joe Dixon), Crassus (David Nicolle) and a certain young man called Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey).
At 3 hours and 25 minutes, this has a lot going on, there is intrigue and conspiracy from beginning to end. There is also the story of Cicero, told through his loyal slave Tiro (Joseph Kloska) which can often feel too expository at times. When the play just gets on with the complex relationships in Roman high society (corruption, backstabbing and incest!) it is a fine piece of work. McCabe is incredible as Cicero and believable as a great orator with even greater morals. Cicero isn’t a perfect man, while he tries to be as corrupt as his fellow senators it never quite goes to plan but the character is warm and likeable. Whilst Kloska’s Tiro plays a crucial role in the book his presence here isn’t always as important, often sitting on the sidelines, this concept may work in novels but it struggles to find a place on the stage.
Imperium I: Conspirator’s biggest strength is its subtle (and often non-subtle) looks at today’s politics. Pompey Magnus looks a lot like Donald Trump, Julius Caesar (an idea explored in The Bridge Theatre’s recent adaptation of the Shakespeare play) is a populist, promising the lower classes land when he knows they have no idea how to work it and living amongst them in the slums to get their votes. Whilst Cicero argues against the idea due to their lack of skill you can’t help but wonder if there is snobbery involved, despite working up himself.
Conspirator ends with Cicero’s reputation, as Julius Caesar takes power, is destroyed as he considers exile. What next for our hero and can he ever return to Rome.
Imperium I: Conspirator is playing at the Gielgud Theatre until 8 September. Book your tickets here.
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