Mike Poulton is the go-to man when it comes adapting plot-dense novels for the stage. Having successfully adapted Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, he’s now tackled Robert Harris’ popular Imperium trilogy about the life of Roman politician and famed orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.
It’s an epic undertaking, consisting of two parts, Conspirator and Dictator, each composed of three ‘plays’, in total amounting to around seven hours of theatre.
As in the novel, the events of Cicero’s life are narrated by his slave and secretary, Tiro. Poulton uses Tiro to navigate through Cicero’s Rome and its vast cast of characters. There are a lot of people to keep track, senators and cosuls, patricians and plebeians, and, as Tiro points out, a large number of them are called Gaius.
Poulton’s adaptation expertly condenses and makes clear all the complex machinations and power plays, the conspiracies, shifting loyalties and betrayals. In his hands the intricate, multi-stranded narrative moves fluidly and is never less than engaging. It’s quite a feat.
Gregory Doran’s production is not nearly as nimble as the adaptation. For every moment of emotional delicacy, there’s another where he can’t help but hammer home the contemporary parallels. This is particularly true of the character of Pompey (Christopher Saul) who is played as a citrus-skinned blowhard with hair that would not look out of place on a Mar-a-Lago golf course. It’s also amusing to see that the Royal Shakespeare Company habit of using five guys in hoodies as shorthand for ‘the people’ extends to plays set in Ancient Rome.
In the demanding central role of Circero, Richard McCabe is incredibly engaging, quick of mind and tongue, but also alert to Cicero’s flaws, his love of the game (and his own voice), his tendency to boast; he can’t help but tell everyone he single-handedly saved Rome during the Catiline conspiracy. Joseph Kloska’s Tiro, always at his side, manages to have a gentle, watchful presence even though he spends a lot of time on stage sitting and listening, and the two have a nice rapport.
From the large supporting cast, Peter de Jersey makes a forceful Caesar, Pierro Niel-Mee puts in two brilliantly different performances as the charismatic, if rather randy Patrician Clodius, in the first part, and the steely Agrippa in the second – and Oliver Johnstone is unsettlingly collected as Caesar’s young heir Octavian, completely convinced of his own divinity.
Designer Anthony Ward has suspended a great golden globe above the Swan stage and covered the back wall with a mosaic. The pit is used frequently to ensure the smooth transition between the numerous scenes and locations.
With the exception of Cicero’s wife (Siobhan Redmond), what women there are in this world of men are mainly scheming “harpies” and his sweet if insipid daughter exists purely to create pathos later down the line. Between them they get scant stage time and no attempt made to critique these power games through the lens of the female characters. Smart as the adaption is, the numerous scenes of (predominantly white) men bellowing get tedious at times.
Poulton’s adaptation is eloquent about power and the things it makes men do, history and who gets to write it, and the production avoids most, if not all, of the pitfalls of staging doorstop novels. It flags a little over its (very) long run time, especially in the later sections when Cicero is no longer at the height of his powers, but it maintains a hold on its audience throughout.