×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

West End Review: ‘Imperium’

It’s “House of Cards” as a toga party.

With:
Nicholas Armfield, Nicholas Boulton, Tom Brownlee, Guy Burgess, Daniel Burke, Jade Croot, Peter De Jersey, John Dougall, Joe Dixon, Mike Grady-Hall, Oliver Johnstone, Paul Kemp, Joseph Kloska, Patrick Knowles, Andrew Langtree, Richard McCabe, Hywel Morgan, David Nicolle, Siobhan Redmond, Patrick Romer, Christopher Saul, Eloise Secker, Simon Thorp, Scott Westwood.

“Imperium” builds Rome in a day. Robert Harris’ trilogy of novels charts the city’s slide from a great civilization to a grim imperial power, as democracy buckles and dictatorship digs in. Onstage, in “Wolf Hall” adaptor Mike Poulton’s adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, now newly arrived in London’s West End, it plays like a grand history cycle: the errors of one era give rise to those of the next. It might be set in antiquity, but contemporary resonance is close at hand.

Ostensibly a biography of Marcus Tulius Cicero — lawyer, orator and senator — as told by his slave-cum-secretary Tiro (Joseph Kloska), “Imperium” is most illuminating on the machinations of political power. While Richard McCabe’s calculating, quick-witted Cicero charms his way to a unanimous electoral victory as Rome’s new consul, a crowd of his rivals are on political maneuvers.

Poulton uses the language of the present to survey the past, so that to watch them jostling for position is to understand the various paths to power. For Joe Dixon’s gladiatorial Catiline, stirring a popular revolt on Rome’s self-serving senate, political weight comes via the masses, whereas Peter De Jersey’s Julius Caesar, a charismatic outsider with a taste for cavorting, puts his cards in with the super-rich. David Nicolle’s Crassus, draped in fine silks, is content to sit back and pull his puppet’s strings. Cicero’s approach is to go through the courts, closing loopholes and tightening laws to cement his vision of a modern republican state.

Throughout, Poulton shows how precarious the business of politics can be, given someone is always after your spot. It’s all checks and balances: checking your back, keeping your balance, and McCabe’s Cicero masters the game with a spring in his step, as if hopping across hot coals for sport. In Harris’ Rome, careers fall via coups and corruption, but lives are cut short by lone-wolf assassins. If they don’t get you, your crimes in office do, and Cicero’s self-certainty and self-interest ultimately catch up with him. In forgetting his old allies, by accident or design, he creates his own enemies, and De Jersey’s Caesar, having survived a near-miss, picks his moment to perfection. “Time for change” gives way to an ominous new mantra in Rome: “Times have changed.”

The second part, weaker since history goes wandering, examines the vacuum after Caesar’s demise. With Mark Anthony (Dixon) overcoming an indecisive senate, an elder statesman Cicero weighs in with Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavian. Oliver Johnston gives the proto-tyrant the purpose of a saint, and McCabe channels the misguided certainty of both Churchill and Blair as he unwittingly ushers another authoritarian state.

For all the pertinence of putting Harris’ books onstage, Poulton’s adaptation feels awfully pedestrian. The story moves at a lick, but to carve through so much plot, every scene becomes a signpost of an event. Characters speak for our benefit, subtext drops out and instead of an embodied plot, Poulton gives us a précis. That might have momentum, and Greg Doran’s staging runs at full-pelt, but it never builds up the head of steam it needs.

Instead, it’s all played on one level: a few bodies wielding torches stand in for huge mobs, Paul Englishby’s alarums sound like an adrenaline shot and powerful men plot their way to more power. You come to crave a sharp visual image, despite the impact of Anthony Ward’s impressive set. Two vast mosaic eyes peer down on Rome, a god judging history from one side of the stage, as we — the future — look on from the other.

It is, then, a political parable, and an accessible one too. McCabe gives a performance that’s complex and clear, charting Cicero’s missteps with a real lightness of touch. The smartness with which he plays the system, inching into corruption unawares, echoes that of our own neoliberal elites. As Tiro, Joseph Kloska’s a likable guide: ever-watchful as he hides behind a benign smile. Others are rather over-ripe: Dixon bellows like a barbarian hoard, and De Jersey’s Caesar seems to acquire superpowers, commanding respect with the palm of his hand. “Imperium” is insightful, but straight as a Roman road.

West End Review: 'Imperium'

Gielgud Theatre, London; 986 seats; £99.50 (each part), $132 top. Opened, reviewed, June 30,2018. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MIN. and 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Production: An RSC and Playful production of two play in three acts by Mike Poulton based on the books by Robert Harris.

Creative: Directed by Gregory Doran; Design, Anthony Ward;lighting, Mark Henderson; music, Paul Englishby; sound, Claire Windsor; video, RSC video department; movement, Anna Morrissey; fight, Terry King.

Cast: Nicholas Armfield, Nicholas Boulton, Tom Brownlee, Guy Burgess, Daniel Burke, Jade Croot, Peter De Jersey, John Dougall, Joe Dixon, Mike Grady-Hall, Oliver Johnstone, Paul Kemp, Joseph Kloska, Patrick Knowles, Andrew Langtree, Richard McCabe, Hywel Morgan, David Nicolle, Siobhan Redmond, Patrick Romer, Christopher Saul, Eloise Secker, Simon Thorp, Scott Westwood.

More Legit

  • White Pearl review

    London Theater Review: 'White Pearl'

    Playwright Anchuli Felicia King dismantles the Asian market in this misfiring satire at London’s Royal Court Theatre. “White Pearl” makes a case that those seeking to make inroads into the Far East, perceiving a new El Dorado, are no better that colonial conquistadors of an earlier age — and entirely unequipped to understand the specifics [...]

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

  • TodayTix - Brian Fenty

    TodayTix Banks $73 Million to Boost Theater and Arts Ticketing App

    TodayTix, a Broadway-born mobile ticketing start-up, is looking to expand into a bigger global media and transaction enterprise with a capital infusion of $73 million led by private-equity firm Great Hill Partners. The investment brings TodayTix’s total capital raised to over $100 million, according to CEO and co-founder Brian Fenty. Part of the new funding [...]

  • Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale and Griffin

    BAM Gala Marks Leadership Change, Celebrates Brooklyn as 'Cultural Center of New York'

    Wednesday’s annual gala celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) served as a poignant moment of transition for the New York stalwart of contemporary performance. As long-time artistic director Joe Melillo, who along with Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM into a vanguard of progressive art, prepares to pass the torch to new leadership, gathered patrons and [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    Listen: Santino Fontana on How Broadway's 'Tootsie' Was Adapted for Our Times

    Broadway’s “Tootsie” has turned into one of this season’s Tony Awards frontrunners, winning raves for its deftly funny update of potentially problematic source material — and for a firecracker cast led by Tony nominee Santino Fontana (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Frozen”), who makes his character’s transformation, from difficult actor Michael Dorsey to female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content