Monday 2 July 2018

The RSC Imperium Plays in the West End, or, Historical Parallels?

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).

Poulton/Harris track 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.

Importantly, Cicero 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 wish.

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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