‘This political saga is to be treasured’: IMPERIUM – Stratford-upon-Avon (RSC) ★★★★★

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Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 10 February 2018

AT LAST…AND FINE TO THE LAST… After snowbound frustration in December drove me onto the road after part I, I saw the first again and that evening reached the second play in one of those epic, unforgettable two-show days. So I can report on the final act in Mike Poulton’s magnificent adaptation from Robert Harris’ novels about the republican orator Cicero. After the Catiline conspiracy comes the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the ensuing conflicts and tragedies.

Either play stands alone – the first perhaps more easily than the second – but together the rich intelligence and lively wisdom of this political, intimate saga is to be treasured. I will not repeat my review of the first play’s three acts. There’s the corpse in the river, the masterclass in the running dilemma of power politics, the t human portrait of a great, flawed, unforgettable man and his times.

The quality of Poulton’s neat sharp filleting and fast-flowing narrative endures into the second – again split into three acts – and so does the clarity and tone of Doran’s direction, always allowing lively absurdity to lie alongside the deepest tragedy. Modern echoes vibrate, especially about America: OK, Pompey’s Trump wig is a good joke, but more fascinating is the general reflection – as Senate and wannabe dictators clash – of how very Roman are the structures and concepts of US politics; a different shape from ours, descended firmly from monarchy and Church…

So now just some brief reflections on that second play, Dictator. At first, we have a vaunting Caesar in gold and scarlet, a spectacular chariot crash, assassination, a chaotic and comedic political panic, some crashing oratory and a really excellent ghost. All within the first fifty minutes.

But as the tale continues, with dismay, conflict, and Cicero’s exile and return, there’s pleasure in the growth: Joseph Kloska, the slave and scribe (now a freeman) was an entertaining and likeable guide-narrator in Part 1 and here flowers into an assertive, alarmed adviser to the ageing Cicero in his last decade as he tries, rashly, to reclaim his influence and revive Republican democracy in the face of Joe Dixon’s immense, craggy, thuggish, and noisy Mark Antony ( not Shakespeare’s artful politician at all). Scenes between him and Cicero are stunning, his eruptions volcanic. The problem of populism, and of the swirl and murk of chaos which follows the death of tyrants, speaks as strongly to us as in the first part. But intensely too come the two parts of the Roman dream , sword and plough ; military glory and quiet, philosophical farm life with wine and olives by the sea, as the freed Tiro the scribe is taken from it, back into the fray with a reviving Cicero,

McCabe’s Cicero, ageing before our eyes, his old virtues and vanities warring within him as he returns to the political fray and ultimate defeat, is superb as before, his family’s fraying and sadness a counterpoint to his fluctuating, flatterable urge to return, his integrity steelier as death comes nearer. Fascinating in counterpoint is Oliver Johnstone as Octavian, the adopted heir of Caesar and only 19. At first he gives us a virtuous school-prefect, almost a Harry-Potter saviour, who gradually hardens into something quite different. And the staging, fluent and evocative, gives us a sense of the Roman mob: always a presence, unseen but heard, or running shouting in the shadows or rising through the great trapdoor to bay at the Capitol steps.
It does not end well for Cicero, or for ideals of liberty. And yet, this most intelligent epic booms down the centuries to us, a tribute to the power of the word and to faith in reason, however doomed.
box office rsc.org.uk 01789 403493 to 10 feb
rating five

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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