Gielgud Theatre, London – until 8 September 2018
With the weather as it is, there are worse ways to spend a day in London than in the blissfully air-conditioned Gielgud Theatre. There, you can partake in the near seven hours of the two-part theatrical extravaganza that is Imperium. First seen at the RSC last winter, Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero novels have a suitably epic feel to them and, anchored by an excellent lead performance from Richard McCabe, also have a real thrill factor.
The first part – Imperium I: Conspirator – follows Roman consul Cicero’s valiant efforts to defend the republic and the rule of law against rebellion and rivalries. And in the hands of McCabe, his silky rhetoric is a joy to behold as he secures his primacy, relying on political manipulation where necessary. Whether defeating Joe Dixon’s Catiline, trying to outmanoeuvre Nicholas Armfield’s slippery Clodius or pin down the wildly ambitious young buck named Julius Caesar (a superb Peter de Jersey), his actions are gripping.
Gregory Doran’s production is unafraid to underscore the contemporary parallels, perhaps too much, with the rise of pompous populist leaders with blond bouffants. And it is a heavy-handedness that isn’t really needed, given the richness of the tapestry at play here and the timelessness of such political machinations. Joseph Kloska’s wryly observant slave/secretary Tiro acts as a narrator and a useful entry point into clarifying matters of plot and which particular character with a name beginning with C we’re dealing with now (Cicero, Crassus, Catiline, Clodius, Catulus, Celer, Cato, Cethegus in this first part alone!).
And creatively it looks powerful indeed on the stage. Anthony Ward’s set design is dominated by mosaic eyes from the rear (beautifully uplit by Mark Henderson) and a giant globe from above (which video projections transform from scene to scene). A few costume choices prove a little baffling but the overall impact is one of impressive scale, matched by a sense of real drama. And should you wish to only partake of one part of Imperium, its plotting stands alone quite well, even as it sets up the next 3+ hours.