Note: A review of the double bill on Thursday 28th June 2018.
Last Thursday I took
the day off to catch Mark Poulton's two part adaptation of Robert
Harris's Cicero novels. It proved to be gripping drama, superbly
performed by a typically fine RSC ensemble and with much to say about
our current politics (both in Britain and across the pond).
the decline and fall of the Roman Republic from the days of the
Catiline conspiracy to the rise of Octavian/Augustus, through the
eyes of Cicero (Richard McCabe) and his slave and biographer (Tiro).
The play is centrally concerned with how you construct workable
governments and it explores the problems/limitations which beset both
republic and dictatorship. We might like to think the former is
obviously preferable, but its flaws are ruthlessly exposed. In the
early stages, watching the ambitious men competing for office I was
reminded of the American founders forever pretending (Jefferson was a
master at this, particularly when it's come to the historians) that
they didn't really want office. Here the nakedness of power lust is
often striking - “It was my turn!” complains Joe Dixon's blunt
Catiline. Nor as these often unsavoury men struggle to best each
other are the plays especially kind to the mass of the people –
waiting to be swayed by the next demagogue who can persuade them with
a clever speech, or silence them with the threat of violence.
himself is far from flawless. He can succumb to corruption,
self-importance. He frequently misjudges others – on no occasion
more seriously than when he assumes he can control Octavian - “he's
just a boy” is a frequent, deluded refrain. But he also reminds us
of the vital things under threat in this turmoil – after the basic
threat to life, the threat to the freedom to think and speak as we
The play walks a
clever path in using this ancient story to comment on our current
political crises. There's not a single specific mention of Donald
Trump, or Brexit, but Poulton (and Harris?) weaves many aspects of those crises
into his narrative in a way that is completely convincing. The idea
of Pompey (a wonderful swaggering performance from Christopher Saul)
as Trump is beautifully done – I shall never be able to look at
Trump's hair in the same way again. Cicero's barbed comment on a
Senate now dominated by immigrants - “it'll be Germans next” - is
another clever touch, not to mention the various remarks about wars
in Syria. There's also a blackly funny scene after Caesar's
assassination where Brutus (here brilliantly played as a hopeless
indecisive ditherer by John Dougall) and his co-conspirators reveal
they've no idea what to do next - “Who's running the country?”
demands Cicero desperately, to be told, “Nobody,” followed by
Brutus's naive assertion that it will all sort itself out...somehow….
Our current government came to mind. But perhaps nowhere is a contemporary parallel more troublingly posited than in the rise of Octavian to, as we see by the end, renewed dictatorship. His late assertion to Antony: "The People have swept away all the old certainties....What matters now is whom they'll follow..." seemed to me to speak really disturbingly to the present.
The plays also
balance humour and darkness very successfully. In addition to points already mentioned there are some great running gags –
people are forever being sent to govern Macedonia, Cicero is mocked
throughout the play because “you're not a military man, are you.”
At the same time the plays can suddenly veer and show us the abyss –
the moment when Octavian declares his godhood is chilling – we
might like to think we are past such an age, but it is impossible not
to recall others currently in positions of power who would like to
regard themselves as similarly above earthly restraints (legal or constitutional), although
they express it differently.
As an aside,
Poulton/Harris deserve particular credit where they're following in
Shakespeare's steps – managing to conjure convincing, fresh takes
on those episodes, while also paying deft tribute to their
predecessor, and our memories – in the concluding mention of
Antony's fate the Shakespeare quotation - “Which oft our stage hath
shown” - is perfectly judged.
There's also a
Shakespearean touch in the balance of the personal and the public.
The scene where the stage seems to shrink as Cicero and Caesar (a
gripping performance from Peter De Jersey) share their thoughts on
death particularly stands out here – I was reminded of the two
justices looking into the void in Henry IV Part 2
. And, although the
relationship gets a bit lost at times in the main drama, moments
between Cicero and his wife Terentia (Siobhan Redmond) can still tug
at the heart – her running gag reminding us her family stood up to
Hannibal becomes, later, one of those tiny reflective moments that
can seem to capture a whole life together. There are one or two
places where plot points are done a bit abruptly (the dying slave's
confession towards the end of Part 1 particularly stood out) but
overall these are magnificently crafted pieces of writing.
That they are
brought to life so grippingly is a testament to a very high quality
ensemble, many of whom I've already mentioned. In the punishing lead
roles both McCabe and Kloska are superb. Another thing worth noting
here is the challenging declamatory nature of many of the set piece
speeches – McCabe brings them off very finely, while also being
able to switch to the comic aside, the intimate confession, the small
gesture (his final taking of Kloska's hand for example). It's a real
tour de force. Kloska bears much of the burden of narration, of
trying to ensure we can keep the enormous cast of characters
straight. In other hands it could sag or bore, but Kloska keeps it
moving, gives it life, makes us care – and we feel with him, alone,
at the conclusion.
Nearly all the
ensemble have to double – and in this case this means undertaking
at least two, substantive and distinctive roles. Of those not already
mentioned I would also single out Oliver Johnstone (who previously
impressed me in Melly Still's wonderful Cymbeline
) as Rufus and
Octavian, David Nicole (Crassus/Pansa) and Nicholas Armfield – who
I hadn't realised was playing the very different Agrippa in Part Two
(after Clodius in Part One) until my brother pointed it out. To begin
with I was less convinced by Joe Dixon, doubling as Catiline and Mark
Antony, who also was a bit more on one level than many of the others
– but his playing of Antony's drunken rages in the Senate was perfectly judged. Finally, mention should be made of Michael Grady-Hall's Cato
– another who really gets how these Senate speeches need to be done.
The fairly bare set
(Anthony Ward) works well. The raked steps to the back and sides
form an effective Senate chamber to bring focus to the debates.
The globe above on which various things are projected adds subtle
atmosphere. There's a fair bit of small furniture movement required,
and it is managed effectively so that I never felt puzzled as to why
particular people were moving a chair at a given moment (unlike in
the recent Young Vic Inheritance
for example). Overall Gregory
Doran's direction is finely judged – knowing how to draw the
viewer's eye in to the confrontations.
Many pieces of epic
theatre end up feeling overlong. Many pieces of political theatre end
up feeling like irritating lectures. This brilliant pair of plays,
superbly performed, avoid both those pitfalls, providing a gripping
and thought provoking six plus hours in the theatre. A highlight of
the year so far. Not to be missed.
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