By Ben Ayaydin
Imperium I: Conspirator is a Royal Shakespeare Company production, based on the Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris and adapted by Mike Poulton. It is the first part in a two part play with Imperium II: Dictator, being the second part of the series. It is not compulsory to see both of them however, as they can both act as standalone performances.
Imperium I: Conspirator tells the story of Cicero who has just been elected Consul by a unanimous vote from the Roman people. ‘Catiline, his aristocratic rival, is furious in defeat and refuses to accept the results of the election. He swears a blood oath to destroy Cicero, murder the government, and take Rome by force. Behind the conspiracy, Cicero suspects, lurks Julius Caesar – young, ruthless, popular with the Roman mob and greedy for absolute power. As law and order begins to break down, who controls the mob controls Rome: Cicero, Catiline, Caesar or the charming but vicious playboy, Publius Clodius?’ (RSC)
However, there is not just a threat from home. As Cicero tries to maintain order, there is the ever looming threat of Pompey’s legions coming home from their campaign abroad. This poses the potential for Pompey to overthrow the republic and install a military dictatorship.
While the plot/narrative features many characters (most of whom are called Gaius), the characters are all distinctive in their own right and that is testimony to the great performances of the actors. There are many notable characters that you will recognise such as Julius Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, etc. and it is interesting to see the characters you know from history, come to life in front of you.
The play explains background information such as Roman history and the political set up really well. This makes it easy to follow for all audiences and therefore widely accessible.
Throughout there is a good use of comedic elements employed by Mike Poulton which makes the play more engaging and enjoyable.
The set design by Anthony Ward was really immersive despite only having one backdrop. Instead, the play did a marvellous job in transporting the audience to different locations through the use of lighting and sound. This can be seen in the use of echoing voices and dimly lighting the stage to reflect the temple, whilst having full lighting to display the senate forum setting.
The costumes were another great element, with each character having a distinctive toga which also reflected their personality just from a glance. Crassus was ordained with a golden trim to reflect his wealth, while Pompey is in full military uniform signalling the ever present reminder that he controls a large and loyal army at his command.
The movement on the stage, in particular during ‘scene changes’ was flawless and really helped the play flow. Rather than disrupt the rhythm of the play, the actors would seamlessly walk into their scenes just as the previous scene was ending, therefore creating the illusion that it was all just one big scene; a continuation of the narrative and I feel that helped in not breaking the audiences immersion from the 3 hour play.
Tiro, Cicero’s secretary (played by Joseph Kloska), acts as the play’s narrator and is ever present to provide the audience with explanations about all the background/contextual information and political jargon.
The whole cast were amazing, in particular Robert McCabe’s Cicero. McCabe holds the floor and exemplifies Cicero’s wit and skills as an orator. In addition, Joe Dixon’s performance as the hot headed Catiline brings to life the threat and muscle the character holds. Dixon’s speeches are particularly strong and demonstrate the sway Cateline had in inciting the Roman public.
Peter de Jersey’s Julius Caesar is fantastic. Caesar is obviously the character who most of the audience know the best, however Peter de Jersey adds an element of unpredictability and mystery around the character.
Often it is difficult to make a 3 hour show about politics interesting, particularly ancient Roman politics. However, this shows the high level of writing Mike Poulton employed to keep us entertained for so long. While 3 hours seems a long time to see a play, particularly if you book to see both parts (amounting to an incredible 6 hours!). It did not feel like the play dragged, since there was always intrigue lurking around the corner.
I look forward to seeing what part 2 (Imperium II: Dictator) has in store.
Imperium I: Conspirator is directed by Gregory Doran and is on at the Gielgud Theatre from the 14th June till the 8th September 2018.
Photo Credit: RSC