Review – Imperium, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 7th December 2017

ImperiumWhat’s an imperium, I hear you ask? Good question. Tiro, Cicero’s slave, whom he frees to become his personal secretary, explains all in the first play of Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy. Imperium is the word the Romans used to mean the power of life and death given by the State into the hands of a single individual. In other words, if you get an imperium, you’re an awfully powerful guy.

Cicero the ConsulI had no expectations of this theatrical treat in advance of the full day’s commitment required to see the plays in one fell swoop. Gentle reader, I am no classics scholar, unless you count my Latin O level, Grade B, of which I am (I believe) justly proud. Before seeing this production, I knew very little of Cicero; apparently, he came from a family of chick-pea magnates, who knew? I haven’t read Robert Harris’ books, although I did spot him in the audience – along with, inter alia, Richard Wilson and Jeremy Irons. I know, shamelessly star-spotting. If anything, I was fearful of a rather dry and dusty Latinate trawl through speeches and murders and Ides of March. And whilst those elements do exist in this seven hours plus marathon (yes, really), there’s absolutely nothing dry or dusty about it. In fact, I had no idea at all that within the first ten minutes I’d be laughing my head off at the interplay between Tiro, nattering intimately with the audience, and Cicero, moaning in the background, complaining of Tiro’s excessive exposition.

Tiro the SecretaryThis is a hugely entertaining, beautifully written, superbly performed examination of Cicero at the heart of Roman Republic conspiracies, and one of the most enjoyable trips to the theatre I’ve had in ages. There are two plays – Part One, Conspirator, and Part Two, Dictator, and if you don’t see them all on the same day I would most definitely recommend you see them in the right order. Each is split into three parts, so you get the rather old-fashioned delight of having two intervals. I always think that makes more of an event of an evening at the theatre; Coward, Rattigan and their ilk would have been thrilled. Part One follows Cicero’s successful election as Consul, much to the annoyance of his rival Catiline; and the machinations of those other power-players, the super-rich Crassus and the ambitious Julius Caesar. We also see Cicero’s family life, with his loyal but frequently dismayed wife Terentia, and his adored daughter Tullia; and there are his protégés, Clodius and Rufus, neither of whom are entirely reliable. By the end of the first play, Cicero seems to be on his way down, and Clodius is on the ascendant. The second play moves on to Caesar’s success and his murder – which has consequences that permeate the remainder of the evening, plus the subsequent misrule of Mark Antony, and the rise of young Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son.

Antony the UnreliableAnthony Ward’s superb design literally sets the scene, with a close-up of two mosaic eyes on the back wall suggesting that, when in Rome, Frater Magnus is always watching you. Stairs descend on to the stage, creating the perfect illusion of the Senate; behind them are hidden further stairs where the mob might approach from below. Beneath the surface of the main stage, the floor opens up inventively to reveal further stairs down; or Lucullus’ fish pool; or any one of a number of clever entrance/exit opportunities. Gareth Ellis’ merry band of six musicians play Paul Englishby’s stirring incidental music to great effect, at times both spookily conspiratorial and triumphantly magisterial.

Terentia the HumiliatedThere are a couple of things that slightly irritated me about the production; and they are slight. The first, I guess, is Robert Harris’ fault. I was a little disappointed to discover at the beginning of the second play that we don’t get to see what happened under Clodius’ rule; he ends the first play so menacingly that there’s got to be a fine tale to tell there. Sadly, we don’t see it for ourselves, although good old Tiro fills us in with all the missing information that happened between the two plays. Secondly, why does Cicero age throughout the second play, so that by the end he is an old man, whereas neither Tiro nor Cicero’s brother, Quintus, befall the same fate? Maybe they dosed up on the Caligae Numerus Septem; they should let us know their secret. And they didn’t need the unsubtlety of presenting Pompey as a Roman Donald Trump, which was basically a cheap laugh at the expense of a more appropriate characterisation. He should have taken a leaf out of Tiro’s book, who makes some very funny allusions to 2017 Britain and its crises whilst still remaining definitely Anno B.C. However, having a couple of aberrations in seven-and-a-half hours’ worth of theatre is, I think, perfectly forgivable.

Catiline the BrutalI’ve seen Richard McCabe on stage a few times in the past, but nothing could have prepared me for how stupendously good he is as Cicero. I know it’s a cliché, but this genuinely is the role he was born to play. He captures every aspect of his personality perfectly, from his oratory, his thinly veiled faux-humility when he’s told how great he is, his calculating ability to take a risk when dealing with powerful people, to his doting on his daughter and his severe disappointment to his wife. Noble of spirit, but also delightfully human too, he’s a sheer joy to watch. For much of the time he performs an incredibly effective double act with Joseph Kloska as Tiro. A faithful servant, but always on hand to speak his mind and give valuable advice, Mr Kloska gives a tremendous performance. He takes us the audience into his confidence and we look on him as a likeable old pal and a direct conduit for us to get involved in all these political machinations. We trust and admire Tiro, and believe every word he says. For this to work, it’s vital for Mr Kloska to build a great relationship with the audience and he truly does.

Caesar the RuthlessNo one in this wonderful cast puts a foot wrong, with some stunning individual performances and extended scenes of really exciting and memorable drama. Joe Dixon is superb, first as the aggressive and bullying Cataline, scarred and scary, and then in the second play as the mercurial Mark Antony, with his alternating soft and violent approaches to dealing with the SPQR. Peter de Jersey is also riveting to watch as the cutthroat Julius Caesar, from his early days “discussing land reform with the wife of a client” (yeah right) to his maniacally imperious ascendance to becoming a god. Pierro Neel-Mie is outstanding as the louche Clodius, following his progress from caring Ciceronian acolyte to power-mad Tribune; a man who says it’s time to seek a wife, and this time not someone else’s, a man prepared to commit sacrilege at the temple of the Vestal Virgins by waving his willy at them. Mr Neel-Mie returns in the second play as the quietly vicious Agrippa, Octavian’s right-hand man; and you wouldn’t want to cross him.

Cato the InspirationalThere are also excellent performances from Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s follower-cum-opponent Rufus, and as the totally unnerving Octavian – if ever butter-wouldn’t-melt turned into the sourest desire for retribution, he’s your man. Siobhan Redmond is excellent as Terentia in a performance that progresses directly from comedy to tragedy; as is John Dougall as a delightfully hesitant Brutus, Michael Grady-Hall as a scruffy but charismatic Cato and David Nicolle as a slimy Crassus. But the whole ensemble is magnificent, and everyone works together to create a superb piece of tight, gripping theatre. You’d never know you’d spent virtually all day in the theatre, it’s so enjoyable that the time just flies by.

Octavian the VengefulIf you don’t know how Cicero’s story ends – well I’m not going to tell you, but if a cat has nine lives, I guess he reached his tenth. Find out for yourself by going to see these brilliant plays between now and 10th February 2018.

Production Photos by Ikin Yum

Review – For Services Rendered, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 29th August 2015

For Services Rendered First Chichester weekend of the year, and a joint visit with our friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. The last time we saw them was for a show in Edinburgh, and it poured with rain. This time, in Chichester, it poured with rain again. We’re seeing them next weekend in Stratford. I don’t have much in the way of climactic expectations!

For Services Rendered 1979After a really superb lunch in the Minerva Brasserie (why would you go anywhere else pre-theatre in Chichester?) we took our seats in the Minerva Theatre for For Services Rendered. Described as a rarely performed play nowadays, I did get to see it at the National in 1979 – on September 14th, in fact, in seat G14 in the Stalls, priced £5.95. I remember it being a stunning production, featuring such stalwarts of the stage as Jean Anderson, Alison Fiske, Peter Jeffrey, Harold Innocent, Barbara Ferris and Phyllida Law. Of course the original production starred Flora Robson and Ralph Richardson – I bet that had the wow factor. But there’s no doubt that this new production at Chichester is, I’m sure, as fine as any in the past. Superb attention to period detail, a deep, beautiful, atmospheric set, and cut-glass acting as good as you’ll get anywhere.

Stella GonetWritten in 1932, this was Somerset Maugham’s last-but-one play, an examination of the fallout of World War One within a well-to-do English family. Fourteen years on, the Ardsleys are still just about surviving, with the oldest son and heir blinded in the war, and therefore unable to carry on the family business; one daughter having lost the man she’d hoped to marry; another having married outside her class (disgraceful) to a tenant farmer; and the third unmarried at 27 with no hope of finding a suitable gentleman in the backwater in which they live. Simon ChandlerIn addition, there is the hard-up ex-officer Collie Stratton, who opened a motor repair business that has fallen on its face, and a married couple with no apparent love for each other, but with the husband eager to seduce the Ardsleys’ youngest daughter. All that, and the doctor brother of the lady of the house has concerns about her health… Maugham weaves these threads together culminating in various degrees of tragedy, although there is one glimmer of happiness for a couple of the characters somewhere there – but on reflection, it’s unlikely to end well.

Anthony CalfWhilst this may be a play from several eras ago, and you may feel that the drawing-room, middle class setting is anachronistic in the post- Look Back in Anger age, there is much to admire and appreciate about this play. Staging it today shows how the general emancipation of women has come a long way; back in 1932 it just wasn’t done for women to make their own decisions about – well, anything really. Marrying outside of one’s class is shown to be a foolish venture, inevitably ending in disappointment; that is perhaps the one element in which this play has a dated feel. Apart from that, much that was relevant then is relevant today. Matilda ZieglerCoping with social shame and scandal can still result in suicide. Lives and relationships can still be ruined in the aftermath of war. As a nation, we still don’t look after our war veterans as we should; many of them still rely on drink or drugs as a prop on which some of them just about get by. Recessions and depressions affect our livelihoods and incomes; but there will always be those who have inordinately inappropriate sums of money at their fingertips, to keep for their own pleasure and fun without a thought for the wider community. If For Services Rendered had been written by Noel Coward, we might have expected a wittier touch or maybe a happier ending; but Maugham liked his gloom, and, despite a few ironically humorous scenes, the tone and vision remain bleak throughout – but appropriately so.

Justine MitchellHoward Davies’ classy production thrills you from the moment you enter the auditorium and are greeted by William Dudley’s elegant, tasteful set; in fact it was all I could do to deter Lord Liverpool from jumping on stage, lolling on one of the dining chairs, feet up on the table, feigning 1930s ennui with a tennis racquet in one hand and The Times in the other. The whole production oozes dignified restraint, from the rarely played wireless in the corner to the well-worn but once hideously expensive eastern carpets. Only the pantomime-like clap of thunder that heralds in the second act strikes an over the top note; I half-expected Mr Ardsley to burst out of a stylised bottle, bestowing three surprise wishes upon the impoverished Collie.

Joseph KloskaStella Gonet’s Mrs Ardsley is a strong matriarch, who knows precisely how to behave decently and will never stoop to depths unbecoming of a lady. Her altercation (such as it is) with youngest daughter Lois is a fine exercise in strict discretion, packing her off to spend months with a miserable aunt before she even has a chance to fiddle with her pearls. It’s a beautiful performance, blending practicality with decorum, and when her character has her own tragedy to contend with, she gives us a classic stiff-upper-lip experience that you can only admire Yolanda Kettleand hope you’d be like that in the same circumstances. As her husband, Simon Chandler is a little nugget of Victorian conservatism, decent but unbending, intelligent but without empathy; a walking, talking, emotional void who follows rules to the nth degree. Much of the ironic humour comes from his total inability to see the wood for the trees.

Jo HerbertAnthony Calf is excellent as always as the abysmal Wilfred Cedar, exuding friendship and bonhomie when it suits him, retreating into hostile selfishness when challenged. He very credibly gives the impression of someone falling in love with love, and there’s a huge element of the pathetic about his approaches to young Lois. Matilda Ziegler’s Gwen is a brilliant creation of a woman under pressure to keep her man, mixing sarcasm and ridicule with sheer venom. I also loved her opening scene where every comment she made could be taken as an insult – it was immaculately performed. There’s also a brilliant performance by Justine Mitchell as Eva, who’s sacrificed her own emotions to do the decent thing by blinded brother Sydney, but who just can’t take any more of that wretched chess.Nick Fletcher Her scene with Joseph Kloska, as the persistently irritated and irritating Sydney, where he’s criticising her on her chess moves, is electric. But it is Ms Mitchell’s semi-coquettish approaches to Nick Fletcher’s Collie, sending as strong a signal as is decently possible to suggest that, like Barkis, she is willing, that constitutes the stand-out performance of this play. She positively hurts with pointless optimism, as she tries to lend him money or suggest they would make a good couple together; but Eva is the character to whom Somerset Maugham most wants to deny happiness, and her increasing mental instability is movingly and convincingly played.

Sam CallisJo Herbert is excellent as the put-upon but stoic Ethel, Sam Callis also very good as the rough and ready farmer Howard with potentially straying hands. Yolanda Kettle is very convincing as the frustrated, teasing and not entirely demure Lois, and David Annen turns in a very nice performance as the doctor/brother, incapable of persuading his patient to do the right thing, and, when it comes to the crunch, resigned to (as he sees it) failure.

David AnnenA rewarding, thoughtful, and thoroughly traditional revival which kept everyone on the edge of their seats and really satisfied its audience. We all came out heaping praise on the performers and the production. If you’re not au fait with between-the-wars British drama this is a perfect opportunity to see how stiff those upper lips could be. Highly recommended.