Two part dramatisations of novels are all the rage at the moment. Theatre these days is competing with the boxset binge lifestyle.
With such ferret and such fiery eyes
Imperium is a dramatisation of the Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris. Harris’ Cicero is a brilliant study of the contemporary politician: ambitious, self-interested, full of cant, blind sighted, intriguing, well intended, only interested in himself. He is the David Cameron of his day, except Cicero comes across as more principled and Cameron as more likeable. This is arguably a great achievement when you consider both these politicians.
The slave owning Cicero was much interested in liberty. Liberty of course meant the freedom for male citizens to do what they wanted. In fact it just meant not being a slave. Roman society was predicated and built on the very principle of slavery. The play, to give it credit, does not shy away from this but beyond all the fancy words about constitutional power over the state and liberty there was another more ubiquitous power operating.
The Paterfamilias (the male head of the family like Cicero) had the power over his slaves to do with them as he wanted: to sell them, to kill them, to breed them, to rape them. Many slave owners were honourable men. There is no reason to suspect Cicero was not an honourable man and slavery was a factor of the time, but it was still a social evil. This needs foregrounding in any conception of Roman liberty and Cicero’s role in defending it.
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
The history of the fall of the Roman Empire inspired writers and thinkers even in Antiquity. Lucan’s Pharsalia is an over earnest and ornate poem praising, as its hero, Pompey. Lucan was in his early twenties when he wrote it. He was impilicated in a conspiracy against Nero and forced to kill himself. He died repeating the words he put in a dying soldier’s mouth possibly from this same poem.
Since the Renaissance both artists and political theorists have picked over the bones of this period of history. If the ancient world was seen as the mother of all Western civilisations then what did this mean for the events of these years. Machievelli’s greatest work is not the prince but rather his Discourses on Livy. This book is an examination of both the Roman Republic and the contemporary politics of Machivelli’s death. In this text Machivelli’s states that the rule of The People is better than the rule of single people and that extra-constitutional action should not be necessary in a well run state. This ambiguity between a sovereign bringing stability to a commonwealth and the need for liberty found later expression in Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (who also translated Lucan). It is in this morally grey area that the play is strongest, yet it struggles to contend with other factors.
This play is written in the post-Truth crisis years. Several crowd pleasing and facile jokes were made about Trump, Brexit, Europe and Nationalism. If anyone wanted proof that embattled liberals are a relative elite then their patronage of midbrow theatre is probably good proof of it. This shoe horning of current affairs into the play is both apt and yet complicates matters. How deep are the comparisons between the fall of the Roman Republic and Brexit. Yes Michael Gove resembles a greasy lamprey fish in both mental ability and face but what does this add to either the development of the play or our understanding of the history.
Ultimately the real elephant in the room is neither Trump nor Brexit. It is Games of Thrones. The play is full of graphic violence, (implied) sex, swearing, Northern accents and intrigue to add “depth”. It doesn’t. Games of Thrones is just Harry Potter for adults. People pretend it’s like Shakespeare or history, but it isn’t. It is just Tits and Dragons. The over-simplistic and cynical view of politics presented in George RR Martin’s worldview is fun but it has all the subtlety of a boarding school for elite wizards being presented as a liberal vision of cosmopolitan society because it is presided over by a kindly elder wizard.
The best modern imagining of the end days of the Republic is still Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. Written in a period that feels oddly similar to today, Graves’ novel manages to explore both human psychology and byzantine politics whilst balancing novelistic realism and the more salacious bits of ancient history. The characters in I, Claudius stand out. The TV dramatization gave us portrayals by the likes of John Hurt, whose Caligula is still the gold standard for despotic rulers. It is unfair to compare Imperium to this massive weight of work but when you are working with classical literature you are weaving costly threads onto a dense woof.
Behold the true father of his country
The main shadow cast on Imperium is of course Shakespeare. Imperium covers the same ground as Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra. Shakspeare took the story from Plutarch. Where Shakespeare’s script is soaring and poetic, Imperium’s is more grounded. Yet the later play shadows the earlier plays in language and psychological insight.
For an audience in thrall to Shakespeare’s poetic pyrotechnics the script of Imperium will come as a wet squib. For many will prefer this play for its easier dialogue.
Yet compared to Shakespeare Imperium lacks meaningful psychological depth. Only Cicero is shown as a full dimensional character. We see this through his love of his daughter, Tullia. Yet what of Pompey? He deeply loved his wife Julia (Julius Caesar’s daughter) and deeply mourned her death, as Cicero mourned his daughter’s. This is never revealed in the play. Instead Pompey is presented as a looming threatening figure (perplexingly a Trump cypher with a blond combover). Possibly the novels are different. Such insights would not take away from the political interpretation but might add to a more complex vision of political infighting (see I, Claudius for this).
Nothing can beat Shakespeare on his home ground, as the RSC well knows. This is Shakespeare for the age of Netflix but what shame that the directors were inspired by Games of Thrones and not Keeping up with the Kardashians. The latter show will likely be revered as a defining piece of art in many ages hence. Among many things it examines power and influence, relationships and identity. The play is a missed opportunity.
The play if lacking depth is enjoyable and worth a watch. Several of the play’s characters are strong. Richard McCabe as Cicero and Joseph Kloska as Tiro carry the play. Peter de Jersey is a fine character actor and fills Julius Caesar’s caligae.
Imperium 1: Conspirator II: Dictator
Gielgud Theatre until 9th September
“With such ferret and such fiery eyes” from Shakespeare
“The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” from Shakespeare
“Behold the true father of his country” from Lucan