Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 10 February 2018
CICERO, CAESAR, CATILINE: ELOQUENCE, AMBITION, HORROR… It begins with a corpse: a horrid human-sacrifice, as we shall learn, as a set of libertines and plotters swear a blood-oath to kill the Consul Cicero. From there the play roams on, thrilling and tense, subtle and shocking and thoughtful. Oh, the sadness of being born fifty years too soon! When I limped gloomily to a D in the Roman History A level it was because that vivid world – precursor and founder of our own civilization – had been rendered unbearably distant and dry by awful textbooks and a dreary teacher.
How were we oppressed schoolgirls to know how thrilling it was? Power struggles, shifting alliances, spurts of dishonest populism by wannabe tyrants, class hostility: a perfect preparation for modern politics, with added bloody rebellion and hideous horror-story deeds. If I had seen this then, I might be a classicist now.
Mike Poulton, who made such a stunning job of Wolf Hall, has adapted Robert Harris’ magisterial novels based on the career and vast writings of Cicero (a vital player, political republican hero and orator, who gets only a few lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Gregory Doran directs with typical pace and his trademark clarity: as with his productions of Shakespeare history plays, never does your mind wander for a second while you worry which Gaius is which, or which side he is (for the moment) backing.
Richard McCabe as Cicero is a marvellous creation: a man risen from lowly beginnings through sheer intelligence and lawyerly eloquence, his genuine belief in the Republic and horror of autocracy fading sometimes endearingly into pomposity; his political gift for expediency always at war with his real principles. It is a masterclass in the running dilemma that is politics, and a credible, poignant human portrait.
Often our sophisticated Cicero is confronted with harsh simplicities of greed and ambition, equally often physically overshadowed. Sometimes by the terrifying brute Catiline (Joe Dixon, making me think of a Marvel Comics super-villain, in a good way ). Sometimes our hero seems staid next to the watchful, sexy young Julius Caesar (Peter de Jersey, one of those faces you can’t take your eyes off). The device of using the amiable, keen slave-secretary Tiro (Joseph Kloska) as narrator is entertaining, and again serves that clarity of plot beautifully. The women in the story are few, but make a forceful mark: Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s rich and barely tolerant wife, a sweet Jade Croot as his daughter, and not least the very foxy Eloise Secker as Clodia, sister and incestuous lover of Clodius, the dandyish young aristocrat who renounces his status to be a Tribune of the Plebs , with pleasing echoes of Wedgwood Benn binning his peerage.
There are six parts, in two sessions (what great television it would make, if TV companies had the cojones!). The first three- CONSPIRATOR – I saw: the second set, DICTATOR , not yet. A hideous weather forecast and four-hour drive home in freezing fog made it unsafe to stay. But the quality, my closer-dwelling companion assures me, is the same: a touch darker, more menacing. Cicero struggles to regain influence and stay alive with his family , and a very different view of Caesar’s rule and death emerges, unlike Shakespeare’s. And comes then Mark Antony , the triumvirate and the dark time after…
I shall buy tickets later and watch both in a day, repeating the first part with pleasure. And I apologize to theatrecat readers for not having both at my fingertips now. But can promise, either way, a sharpening, intelligent, theatrically irresistible experience.
box office rsc.org.uk 01789 403493 to 10 feb