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.

Frozen at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ****

frozen-water-drops

Frozen

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 8th March 2018

I see the Theatre Royal Haymarket is up for sale. Or rather a 70 year odd lease from the Crown Estate, a pernickety landlord, but one who has preserved the beautiful Nash terraces around Regents Park, and is slowing upgrading the built environment along Regent Street which looks a lot less sh*tty than it did 30 years ago.

I would love to buy it but I guess 20 quid won’t cut it. I assume that one of the big West End theatre companies, ATG, NIMAX or Delfont Mackintosh, will get its hands on it. I hope the new owners don’t tamper with the repertoire too much though I guess the family wouldn’t be selling up if they were minting it. A London home for that part of the RSC’s output which doesn’t get taken to the Barbican, and an opportunity for established directors and big name actors to tackle slightly more challenging work. Like Albee’s Goat last year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****), the less successful revival of Venus in Fur and now Bryony Lavery’s challenging Frozen. In years gone by we’ve had some Bond, Beckett, Shakespeare and Stoppard. Looking forward we have the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg bowling up in all their splendour and a French/English Tartuffe.

TRH, along with the Harold Pinter Theatre just round the corner, (ATG, and hosting the transfer of the the NT production of Nina Raine’s Consent from 18th May with a new cast), the Wyndham’s (Delfont Mackintosh) and the Garrick (NIMAX) at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, as well as the Duke of York’s (ATG) and Noel Coward (Delfont Mackintosh) next door on St Martin’s Lane, are pretty much all you need in term of “proper” theatre in the West End, including most successful transfers from the subsidised sector. Maybe the Playhouse (ATG) and the Gielgud (Delfont Mackintosh) as well.

The Grade 1 listed Regency TRH though is my favourite. The stuccoed front elevation looks like the real deal with its beautiful portico with six elegant Corinthian columns. The theatre was designed by none other than John Nash and dates from 1821 having replaced the previous incumbent which was built in 1720. It acquired its royal patent in 1776 joining its namesake in Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House. We were lucky enough to see Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg with Simon Russell Beale in 2015, at the Hampstead Theatre, not here, which tells the fascinating story of the TRH’s founding.

The bars in the TRH don’t look like an afterthought, loos are adequate and legroom is very good throughout. The Tourist has found plenty of lovely seats, from the 900 or so total, to suit his needs here, something he can’t necessarily say about the other theatres mentioned above. Outside of the balcony, the seats are comfy and in everything bar the very back of the stalls, and one or two by the wall in the dress circle, sight-lines are very good. The space is airy enough to accommodate the gold-leaf plastered on every surface of the beautifully maintained neo-classical interior, and the blue upholstery creates a much more balanced aesthetic when compared to bog-standard red.

So any theatre buyers reading this, by which I mean buyers of theatres, not tickets, I would snap up the TRH, however onerous the lease clauses.

What about Frozen I hear you ask. I will resist the urge to make the customary joke about kids getting a little bit confused by the absence of Queen Else belting out Let It Go. For Frozen, as I am sure you know, deals with a serial killer, Ralph played by Jason Watkins ,who sexually assaults and murders Rhona, the 10 year old daughter of Nancy, played here by Suranne Jones. Our speaking cast is completed by Nina Sosanya who plays Agnetha, the American psychiatrist who studies the case. The play essentially asks whether those who commit such crimes are born “evil” and whether they can, in any way, be forgiven.

So it is strong stuff and director Jonathan Munby and designer Paul Wills don’t pull any punches. Ms Lavery’s play was lauded when it first appeared in 1998 at the Birmingham Rep and garnered awards at the NT in 2002 and on Broadway in 2004. It hasn’t popped up again in London, perhaps not a surprise given the sIt is very well researched and emotionally powerful as you would expect though it does come over as a little calculated, with the Agnetha character slightly forced. When it is good though, it is very, very good. It is constructed initially from short monologues, later moving to dialogue between Agnetha and Ralph as she studies him, a meeting between Agnetha and Nancy and finally a meeting in prison between Nancy and Ralph himself where she offers forgiveness.

None of this would work if the audience were not totally convinced by Ralph. It probably isn’t any surprise that Jason Watkins delivered. I don’t mean to suggest that this will have been an easy role for him to inhabit, just that his TV performance as the teacher Christopher Jeffries who was wrongly accused of murder, suggested to me that his technique might prove suited. I was not however prepared for just how good he is in this. With his flattened West Midlands vowels, his false pride in his “logistical” skills, his pedantic explanation of events and his extreme temper he seemed to me to be the embodiment of the “banality of evil”. He is chilling, yes, undeniably odd, but also believably humdrum and, on the surface, quite affable. Detail after detail, his description of the van he uses to abduct his victims, the way he engages them in conversation, the appalling scene where he is displaying his paedophile videotapes, the explosions of anger in prison, leave the audience revulsed, of course, but compelled to watch more.

It is hard for Suranne Jones to match this. The play probably works better in a much smaller space. Director, and the design team, understandably want to fill the TRH stage, conjuring up projections of brain scans, assorted “frozen” images, ghostly images of Rhonda, and the like, wheeling props on and off with each scene change, as well as some unsubtle soundscapes. This all proves a little too bold I think, and Ms Jones has the most difficulty in projecting the incomprehension and grief that consumes Nancy for over twenty years, out into the audience. It is a bit easier for Nina Sosanya to highlight Agnetha’s contention that Ralph’s behaviour reflects his damaged neurological make-up, given much of this is delivered in the form of imagined scientific lectures. She also has some opportunity to show lighter moments, though we learn later on that she too is grieving over her own loss.

So no doubt this is a very good play, sympathetically delivered by a fine trio of actors. The direction might be a little heavy handed, and the space a little cavernous for what is an intense, episodic chamber piece, but it is well worth seeing. Particularly if you snap up some of the cheaper seats on the day. Just make sure everyone in your party is up to speed on the content.