The world political scene is changing so rapidly that it is difficult to decide at first whether Alan Wilkins’ award-winning play, given its English premiere at the Ustinov in Bath, can be described as topical.
The initial impression is that the Roman consul Marcus Porcius Cato’s cynical reasons for going to war with Carthage - financial problems at home and a government losing its grip on power - represent a metaphor for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is even possible to see the charismatic Cato as the Tony Blair of the conflict, with his fellow spin doctor Gregor and loyal follower Marcus an amalgam of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.
However, Wilkins packs the riveting first act with such a raft of ideas, conflicts, power plays and betrayals that it moves rapidly onto a whole new political plane. A whispering campaign to win support from the man in the street, the demonisation of the opposing state on racial and economic grounds, and a growing sense of sexual and moral turpitude, are all explored in an absorbing chain of scenes set in a Roman steam baths.
The second act, in Carthage three years later, is not so rich in content, concentrating mainly on the disillusionment of a previous government supporter now occupying a strange land. The play is no mere political polemic though, and the authoritative four-man cast of John Stahl, Paul Blair, Clifford Samuel and Andrew Scott-Ramsay ensures this challenging production completes an outstanding year’s work at the Ustinov.