Imperium Reimagined

By Ian Shuttleworth

Mike Poulton is an immensely skilled writer of stage adaptations. The only time he’s not working on several projects at once is when he’s working on one that’s the size of several, such as his version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, which the Royal Shakespeare Company staged four years ago. Now he’s done the same for Robert Harris’s trilogy of novels, set during the first century BC and centring on the Roman orator and politician Cicero.

This two-part adaptation – six hours of stage time, plus four intervals – takes its name from Harris’s novel Imperium, though it actually takes precious little material from that book: just a quick flashback to indicate Cicero’s rise, before moving on to his term as consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic.

Roman politicking is complex, and we’re given a hefty intro by the narrator of the piece, Cicero’s secretary Tiro, which leads even his master to interrupt with, ‘It’s getting very expositional....’ 

In Part I, Cicero thwarts Catiline’s conspiracy to overthrow the Senate but fails to deal with the power behind Catiline – one Gaius Julius Caesar (as Tiro observes, the intricate faction-fighting usually involves several Gaiuses). It ends with an ascendant Caesar forcing Cicero into exile. Part II kicks off with his return in time for the Ides of March, siding with the assassins but, now older and less sure-footed, finding himself repeatedly outmanoeuvred by another Caesar, Julius’s young heir Octavian, later the emperor Augustus (but who’s currently, unsurprisingly, a Gaius).

It’s broadly the same historical territory as Shakespeare’s two foremost Roman tragedies. Cicero, played by the compelling Richard McCabe, is not unlike a tragic hero, brought down by one or two fatal flaws: in this case, political timidity and personal vanity, especially after he is awarded the title Father of the Nation for seeing off Catiline.

Harris points up parallels with modern events, and frankly director Gregory Doran can go overboard with this aspect, as when Pompey the Great appears sporting an implausible Trumpoid bouffant, declaring: ‘I shall serve the Senate, not dictate to it.’ At least they didn’t call him Pompey the Bigly. Still, it only trivialises the original classical events.

The production keeps the attention through both longish parts (titled Conspirator and Dictator), but it doesn’t go far beyond, precisely because it tries too hard. It would make a fine TV miniseries, perhaps even better than Wolf Hall, but on stage its gear-changes between seriousness and humour grow formulaic.

Imperium is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 10 Feb: 01789-403493,