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 – Yes Prime Minister, Derngate, Northampton, 9th June 2011

Yes Prime MinisterI don’t have to tell you how much of a landmark television programme Yes Minister and then Yes Prime Minister were during the 1980s. They attracted massive audiences and gilded the already glowing careers of Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne. If you catch a repeat episode today, it still makes you shake with laughter, revealing hypocrisy, pricking pomposity, rescuing triumph from tragedy.

Thus the Derngate theatre was pretty much packed last night with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age and class who would have been loyal fans of the TV show. Mrs Chrisparkle was a loyal fan of the show in her youth and was probably the youngest member of the audience. No criticism here – it’s great to see a production providing something that people want to see and the concept of bums on seats is good for everyone.

The scene is Chequers – all very convincing wood panelling and bookcases; and its windows and external brickwork definitely reminded us of the walks we used to do years ago that crossed the Chequers estate when we were Bucks based. It’s a timeless location; and serves to reflect the Yes Prime Minister of the 1980s and the updated 21st century version equally well. For indeed Jim Hacker is today Prime Minister of a coalition government, facing modern issues such as the banks, global warming, and public sector cuts. It takes a leap of faith to believe that the same three people (Jim, Humphrey and Bernard) – or at least three people with the same names and jobs – are still in charge of the country thirty years on; but you accept it nonetheless.

However, the script is firmly as PC as it would be in the 1980s, if not 70s. In fact it’s one of the most xenophobic pieces I’ve come across in a long time. From the Prime Minister’s early references to wops, dagoes, micks and polacks (inter alia), through taking the rise out of our European partners, to a plot progression which suggests some perilously dire consequences for some people but it’s ok because they are only foreigners, I personally found a lot of the content a bit distasteful. This is definitely a world that has never come into contact with Ben Elton, and makes Terry Wogan’s “Johnny Foreigner” positively diplomatic.

I wondered how the production would treat the concept of bringing back much loved characters associated with much loved actors and make it work without the original cast. Would they indeed be the same characters? Would they be doing impersonations? Would they be completely different? Well, yes they are more or less the same characters, they certainly aren’t impersonations and they are somewhat different.

Simon WilliamsSimon Williams plays Sir Humphrey and he comes across as a much more benign figure than Nigel Hawthorne. You feel that he isn’t quite so devious as his 1980s counterpart, a little more aloof, a little more enjoying the luxury of power, more laid back, less Machiavellian, almost avuncular. I don’t know if Simon Williams had a cold, but his voice wasn’t very clear or powerful when we saw it and this detracted from the natural authority you associate with the role. However, he admirably coped with Sir Humphrey’s long obfuscating speeches, which twice earned him a round of applause from the appreciative audience. After the first one, I saw Richard McCabe as the PM mouth “Well done” to him.

Richard McCabeRichard McCabe plays Jim Hacker a little more cynically than Paul Eddington – this PM is purely interested in self-preservation. All his plans are devised to secure his own political tenure, Richard McCabe's astonished lookand you sense that if this causes something which is a boost to the country, that’s merely a fortunate bonus. This is perhaps a slightly more realistic updated character; but he is also more of a buffoon too, reverting to childishness when really Up Against It, and adopting a look of astonishment perhaps a little to readily.

Chris LarkinChris Larkin as Bernard Woolley is perhaps the most different from the TV characterisation. His Bernard is rather camp, a terribly public-school prig; and when he does his set-piece speeches which correct grammar or metaphor, he comes across as a bit of an arrogant arse whereas Derek Fowlds’ Bernard was more genuinely earnest. I didn’t get a sense of his real personality.

Charlotte LucasWhereas Simon Williams played the whole thing straight and gave it credibility, both Messrs McCabe and Larkin frequently went into pantomime mode with their facial expressions and general comic business, which felt a bit unbalanced. The two other major characters, Charlotte Lucas as Claire the policy adviser and Kevork Malikyan as the ambassador, were both very straightforward and realistic and were excellent. However, in a cameo role, Michael Fenton Stevens as the political presenter interviewing the PM on TV seemed to me to go way over the top on the stunned facial expressions, paving the way to what I felt was rather a sudden and underwhelming climax to the play.

Kevork MalikyanWithout doubt, there were some extremely funny sequences. I loved the Prime Minister’s prayer scene. It’s exactly how you think a PM would pray. Sir Humphrey’s script is well written and full of entertaining observations. And the biggest belly laugh of the night actually went to a prop – I’ll say no more. But the revelation of the sexual proclivities of the Kumrani Minister, whilst sharply focusing the play in the modern era, actually served to reduce the comic effect somewhat, and I did find the constant xenophobia persistently irritating.

Michael Fenton StevensThat said, the appreciative audience laughed a lot, especially in the second half, and it was warmly received at curtain call. Maybe the overall problem with it is that it takes 2 hours 20 minutes to tell a story that 30 years ago would have been more pithily condensed into a half-hour programme. It was good, there were some laughs, but we expected more.