Please note: I was given tickets to Imperium II: Dictator in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.
Last Thursday, I settled into my seat at the Gielgud Theatre to watch one of the Imperium plays that are based on the Cicero trilogy of novels by Robert Harris and have been adapted for theatre by Mike Poulton (who was also responsible for the hugely successful adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies).
Harris’s trilogy – Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator – follow the rise and fall of Marcus Tullius Cicero, considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and who served as consul in 63BC. Mike Poulton has condensed and adapted the trilogy of books in to a two-part play, and each section of the play (Part I: Conspirator and Part II: Dictator) may be viewed separately as a stand alone play, although to get a full understanding of the scope of Cicero’s story, it’s best to get tickets to both if possible.
Photo by Ikin Yum. Image source.
I was given tickets to see Part II: Dictator, and I was concerned that I’d be a little lost, having not seen Part I, but fortunately it was easy to pick up the threads of the story from the beginning, and the second half of the tale is a truly gripping rendition of Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony’s rise to power and Octavian’s scheming ambition, told from the perspectives of Cicero and his faithful servant, Tiro.
It’s the examination of Cicero’s complex personality – a mix of vanity, insecurity, profound intelligence and theatricality – and the focus on the political machinations of Rome that make these plays stand out and provide a fresh outlook on the well trodden path of Rome’s ancient history. Although Cicero’s prose had an incredible impact on the significant writers, thinkers and politicians of the Renaissance, he is a character that has been surprisingly little seen in popular culture. Shakespeare, of course, concentrated on Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, giving only a few lines to Cicero, but the Imperium plays show the vital role Cicero enacted within Roman politics.
His is a story that lends itself well to the theatre: Cicero was a brilliant performer, making his orations a spectacle that could draw a remarkable crowd, and the Royal Shakespeare Company has done a tremendous job at bringing to life the intrigues, ambitions and politics of his extraordinary career. The cast was extremely strong, and there were several exemplary performances. Critics have lauded Richard McCabe’s performance as Cicero as ‘career-defining,’ and he gave a magnificent portrayal of Cicero’s complicated character: in one moment the thoughtful philosopher, in the next a pompous and boastful orator.
Richard McCabe as Cicero. Image source.
For all his faults, however, Cicero’s utter conviction in the rule of law and his commitment to the sanctity of free politics and free speech, for which he ultimately sacrificed his life, is undeniably noble and strikes a chord in today’s world of turbulent politics.
If you fancy a memorable night involving great story-telling and remarkable acting, then I highly suggest seeing one or both of the Imperium plays, or tickets to one would make a wonderful gift for any history/politics buffs in your life. I’m now tempted to book tickets to see Part I, even though it means watching the story back to front, as I’m sure it would be wonderful!