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Imperium II: Dictator

Based on The Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris, adapted by Mike Poulton
Royal Shakespeare Company
Gielgud Theatre

Joseph Kloska Credit: Manuel Harlan
Joe Dixon and the Cast of Imperium Credit: Manuel Harlan
The Cast of Imperium Credit: Manuel Harlan

Like Conspirator, Imperium II: Dictator is divided into three mini-plays, each named after a ruthless individual who sought and made great use of their position as ruler of the Roman Empire.

First up is Peter de Jersey in the guise of Julius Caesar. Where the first series of plays featured diplomatic argy-bargy as those seeking wealth and influence played the Republic’s political games, Caesar ruthlessly seizes power and effectively reduces the Senate to little more than a rubber stamp.

Increasingly, he is portrayed as a megalomaniac keen to conquer the country and the world whatever the cost in human terms. In the background, Richard McCabe’s doughty Cicero, shadowed by Joseph Kloska as his freed slave and secretary Tiro, still attempts to steer political power plays in the right direction although frequently he meets with limited success.

However, the people will rarely favour tyrannical dictators for long and a group of conspirators led by the surprisingly boring Brutus send Caesar towards his fatal destiny.

Despite the finest efforts of Cicero, the Empire begins to drift and the vacuum is filled by louche, lazy Mark Anthony, portrayed by Joe Dixon as a very different character to the Shakespearean version with whom we are all familiar. Having delivered a worthy and passionate eulogy to his friend Julius Caesar, Antony and his wife Fulvia, a harridan in the hands of Eloise Secker, ruthlessly steals Julius Caesar’s ill-gotten wealth and private papers, which together enable the new emperor to protect his own position and enjoy a dissolute lifestyle, literally at the expense of his people.

Inevitably, though from a distance, Cicero is at the centre of efforts to bring the second dictator’s reign to an early end, forming dangerous alliances in his attempts to protect the commonwealth and avoid an impending civil war from which there is unlikely to be any winner.

A deeply rewarding if long day is completed by the final play which features Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, played by Oliver Johnstone. He is a clever, politically astute 19-year-old filled with confidence and showing no sign of fear, who offers Cicero opportunities for a return to consulship in his dotage but at a price.

The kind of spectacular civil war that Gregory Doran and the RSC portray so spectacularly rages during much of the final hour, before a closure that might well send readers off to bookshops in search of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in an excited attempt to discover what happens next.

Nobody can deny that a seven-hour day is a challenge but those with an interest in history, power or people should relish a production that sees the RSC somewhere close to its very best, helped by a strong cast led by Richard McCabe and Joseph Kloska with Joe Dixon in the vanguard, in the kind of major work that few other theatres would even attempt, let alone present in such stylish and spectacular fashion.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher