Imperium at the Gielgud Theatre review ****

cicero

Imperium I Conspirator and Imperium II Dictator

Gielgud Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, 18th July and 25th August 2018

I don’t read much. Don’t have the patience or the imagination. Much easier to get my kicks from the theatre, or from film, where other people can do all the hard work. Also suspect years of reading, writing and talking, to no great effect, in an office, for the greater good of neo-liberal capitalism, has shredded what grey matter I once had. Not like the SO. A voracious reader.

All of which means I have no view on the novelist Robert Harris. Never read anything he has written. Always had him down as a writer of pot-boiling political thrillers. Not even seen any of the film adaptions. On the strength of this majestic entertainment, an adaption of Mr Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero adapted by Mike Poulton, I think I might have missed a trick. It looks like Mr Harris’s books would be right up my street and he sounds like a terribly good bloke as well.

So next holiday reading now nailed down what about this RSC blockbuster? Apparently Mike Poulton had to be fairly judicious with what he took from the book, focussing on certain episodes in the maturity of the great orator’s life, but what he has conjured up, together with RSC AD Gregory Doran, is a fantastic slice of theatre. OK so there are times, as in some of Shakespeare’s weaker sections in the history plays, where the shuffling of characters on and off the stage, and the expository repeats, become a bit cumbersome, but generally Mr Poulton and Mr Doran have, through a variety of devices, ensured that, throughout the 7 hours or so of the two plays, we know exactly who is doing what to whom and, mostly, why. We also get an insight into the mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers, (or at least one of the greatest thinkers in a Western culture still in thrall to the Classical), and some universal lessons about the nature of politics and representation, and the symbiosis of word and deed in history, or at least the history of “great men”.

The plays also succeeds thanks to the casting of the two main protagonists. Richard McCabe is a thoroughly convincing Cicero, principled, courageous, sardonic, egocentric. Joseph Kloska as his secretary and our narrator Tiro, is equally impressive even if he has less to work with. There is more than a touch of the buddy movie about their central relationship. The audience is frequently dragged in to proceedings whether as the imagined Senate that Cicero and others address, the mob, or, breaking the wall, as conspirators in the events on stage. Not formally innovative but very satisfying in this kind of “one thing after another” history play. The political canvas, as we pass through Cicero’s election as Consul, his machinations with Catiline, Clodius, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and, finally, Octavian (Augustus), all to protect the values of the Republic and, take note, the rule of law, is contrasted with the domestic, Cicero’s dysfunctional relationships with wife, family and proteges. If you know your Roman history and/or your Shakespeare, this is a delight. Even if you don’t the touch is so light that it is a breeze to follow.

The staging, against the steps leading up to a pair of giant. mosaic eyes, in Anthony Ward’s set, is as dramatic as it needs to be when serious stuff is playing out, but there is a thread of humour, largely milked by the two leads which prevents it turning into a slog. Sometimes the laughs, and the delivery, edges a little bit towards the Up Pompeii, but this is a good thing in my book, and much better than the alternative of ponderous epic. Composer Paul Englishby and sound designer Claire Windsor have very adroitly managed to plot a way through this tonal warp and weft, not easy to sustain over this length of time. The same is true for Mark Henderson’s lighting composition. Indeed the entire creative crew should be lauded for their studied concentration. It would be easy to let things slide, or for the pace to ease up, when you have this much to show, but, if at any point my concentration wavered, it was my fault not theirs.

With this size of undertaking, 44 named parts and more walk-ons and crowd scenes beyond that, and spanning four decades, most of the cast were doubled up across the two plays. In addition to Cicero and Tiro, Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s put upon wife Terentia, Jade Croot as his unfortunate daughter Tullia and Paul Kemp as his bluff brother Quintus all stuck to one role, along with Peter de Jersey imperious, (no other adjective will do), Julius Caesar. When he came on all fake chummy to Cicero he captured exactly the air of a big man who knows he can’t be refused. Oliver Johnstone (after young Rufus in Part I) played Octavian with an air of even greater menace as he seized the opportunity given to him by his adoptive father Caesar Mk I. Joe Dixon seemed to relish the roles of, first, entitled aristo Catiline and then, a boozed up Mark Antony, as did Eloise Secker as the scheming Clodia and then Fulvia. This is, unfortunately, not a story with much to offer in the way of female roles, so it was a bit disconcerting, and unusual, to see so many white men on show. Still that was Rome, except that it wasn’t really.

Turning Cicero’s life, through the device of a biography written by his (originally) slave, mediated through millenia of scholarship, a writer of gripping fiction, and then on to the stage, was bound to throw up all sorts of questions about how we interpret the Ancients and how the “principles” they established still inform the world today, politics, democracy and drama, most prominently. Layer that into a fast moving biography, contemporary resonance, (for once not shoehorned in), and a history lesson, and you can see why the team here was pretty much on the case as soon as the ink had dried on the final part of Robert Harris’s trilogy, also entitled Dictator. History does not repeat itself, nor is there some deterministic arc to human progress, but two-bit, populistic tosspot geezers (always men) are ten a penny. Easy to spot, less easy to stop.

For all of you who get sniffy about the RSC and its contribution to the cultural fabric of this country, and, the world, I respectfully suggest you zip it. Here’s a great story, thrillingly told, neither too high or too low brow. Of course, as usual, by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing it and writing about it, it’s pretty much all over but I would hope this adaptation has an afterlife and I for one would love to see more “history” plays delivered in such confident, ambitious style. Like I say, if like me, you just don’t have the attention span to read a book or devote days to a box-set, then this is the thing for you. Proof positive that anyone who thinks theatre is a dreadful, long drawn out bore hasn’t tried and basically doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Exit the King at the National Theatre review ****

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Exit the King

National Theatre Olivier, 15th August 2018

My first Ionesco play, albeit in a version adapted by ubiquitous wunderkind Patrick Marber, (one day the image of Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan that pops up at the mention of his name will pass), and, all things considered I liked what I saw and heard. I gather Exit the King is the least absurdist of his major works but there is nothing existentially impenetrable about this production. Apparently too this was the National Theatre’s first ever production of this playwright.

Maybe, over its 100 minutes or so running time, its theme, forgive the pun, was done to death. And maybe there was a bit too much “one character at a time”, comic-strip style declamation but overall I was hooked. Rhys Ifans, who I cannot lie, can annoy me, (I wasn’t bowled over by his fool in the Glenda Jackson Old Vic Lear), was perfectly cast as King Berenger; his movement, stature and delivery were expertly marshalled to great effect as the King went through the various stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression) on the way to accepting his death. Indira Varma was imperiously forthright as Queen Marguerite, as you might expect, and Amy Morgan as Queen Marie, the King’s pandering favourite was a fine foil, even if I have to assume she was more Breton than Ile-de -France given the Welsh twang in her Gallic accent. Adrian Scarborough as The Doctor has added another notch to his long list of comedy side-kicks, the under-rated Debra Gillett squeezed a lot of laughs out of the maid/nurse Juliette as did childhood hero Derek Griffiths as the Guard, (I only realised it was him halfway through), with his pithy Brechtian pronouncements on the action.

Patrick Marber once again showed what a clever fellow he is, not just in the way he understands and interprets classic texts, but in the way he makes them relevant and lucid to contemporary audiences, (After Miss Julie, Don Juan in Soho, Three Days in the Country, Travesties). That I guess is what makes him so bankable as a writer/director though I would like to see him conjure up another original play to rival the heights of Dealer’s Choice and Closer. Anthony Ward’s set design is a triumph, showing it is possible to fill the vast Oliver barn with just six characters, and the coup de theatre delivered at the end, with the assistance of High Vanstone’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound design, is worth the ticket price alone. No hyperbole here. I literally think it is worth paying £15, for there are plenty of the cheap Travelex tickets left, to see this technical wonder.

King Berenger has reached the grand old age of 483. His kingdom is on its knees but the despotic old boy doesn’t seem to care. He discovers he only has an hour or so to live. There’s nothing the Doc can do. Welcome to the surreal world of French-Romanian playwright Eugene Inonesco. We are in a fairy tale though one that seems to obey Aristotelian real time. KB isn’t happy about the news. His Queens alternatively coax him into denying or accepting this reality. There’s is a deal of metaphysical and psychological insight, some game-playing and a few good one-liners, even if there is no real surprise in the narrative arc. But it does make you think and you do identify with the humanity inside these fabulous characters and there is an energy or, for want of a better term, a life-force, in the play which draws you in, despite the dramatic inertia. As someone who has veered rather too closely towards the guard-rails of mortality in recent years I could see what Ionesco was driving at. He does sound like a bit of a eeyore who spent too long pondering the big questions in life, (and here death), but we need people like that to spare us having to grapple with all this mind-f*cking stuff.

Exit the King is a tragedy played as a comedy and there is, as we know, a lot of fun to be had in that. It isn’t difficult to spot the parallels with the central concern of Lear say, albeit big Will shoves in a few other themes, (and Lear obviously has a fair dose of the absurd), as well as your man Beckett. I have to say though I found this easier to digest than Beckett, though I am no expert. Maybe that reflects the quality of the production but I think I would be keen to see this chap Berenger again, (apparently he crops up in other EO plays Rhinoceros, The Killer and A Stroll in the Air). I suspect that I won’t have too many opportunities to realise this dream, as this is not the sort of theatre to guarantee bums on seats, so I had better crack on with it.

Lurking behind this one-key morality tale Mr Marber does try to draw out a broader message. Just as when we individually die, we die – that’s it folks – and our lives don’t really matter, so it is the same for our species. Homo Sapiens will end with a slow whimper not a bang (technology I’m afraid is the enabler, not the saviour, of our destruction), and there will be no consciousness left to care or mourn. A combination of cynicism and stoicism is the only solution.

Have a nice day.