The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings

A CurtainUp London Review

"I could snap his mind with a single well aimed aphorism." — Cicero
Richard McCabe as Cicero and Peter de Jersey as Julius Caesar (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
The Royal Shakespeare Company had considerable success with their stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels about Thomas Cromwell Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies review and Mike Poulton has persuaded best selling novelist Robert Harris to allow him to adapt Harris's three novels about Marcus Tullius Cicero into two sets of three part plays.

In Part I CONSPIRATOR the first set of three plays, Cicero, Catiline and Clodius we follow Cicero's career with a brief illustration of Cicero (Richard McCabe)'s court oratory when as a lawyer he prosecutes Verres (the interestingly named Guy Burgess) a corrupt former governor of Sicily. The plays are partially narrated by Tiro (Joseph Kloska) Cicero's secretary who records his life for us.

Cicero had huge significance for bringing Greek scholarship to Rome, for coining new words, but more than anything his reputation as an orator was second to none. His writing, speeches, letters are the largest of any individual Roman to survive. The stage adaptations concentrate on his political career when, despite coming from a family of farmers (cicero means chick pea but some Roman families were named after vegtables, like Piso for pea), he rose to be one of the two consuls ruling Rome.

Cicero's ascent to power is remarkable because he had neither the rich family nor the military background that traditionally Rome's ruling elite came from. He is a popular choice but the city is liable to fall to mob rule and the Senate is divided. Catiline (Joe Dixon) plots a military coup after failing to win the consular vote and is a lifelong enemy of Cicero.

The contradictions come home to us in this adaptation when Verres is prosecuted for crucifying a citizen of Rome without trial but Cicero in order to put down the Catiline rebellion orders the garrotting of Roman citizens who have conspired with Catiline, again without trial. The conspirator who is spared is Julius Caesar (Peter de Jersey).

This is a Rome where the Gods are placated, the Vestal Virgins revered, Auguries paid attention to and Catiline is the forerunner of a Mafia boss. In the first play, a body is found of a young singer, a boy whose entrails have been removed after he was sacrificed to superstition. Dominating Anthony Ward's set is a huge mosaic of a face found at one of the Roman sites and suspended above a golden globe of the extent of the Roman Empire. Mark Henderson's lighting is exciting and the projections onto the golden globe evocative of different states of war and peace.

Richard McCabe is superb as Cicero but perhaps I should have reserved that adjective for Christopher Saul's general, Pompey Magnus Superbus, "Don't laugh at the hair!" whose bottle blonde quiff reminds us of another international leader full of self regarding puff and arrogance. But McCabe is an actor of splendid range and stage presence as the great orator and Joseph Kloska's Tiro is a delight with many of the asides to the audience, small jibes of wit and welcome subtle humour. We hear the Empire has a problem with a region called Syria and we smile at the parallels with today.

At the end of the CONSPIRATOR plays Cicero has over extended himself on a house on the Palatine Hill and fallen out with his disreputable protegé and neighbour Clodius (Nicholas Armfield). He has to go into exile.

The second set Part II DICTATOR plays are Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian. It was in these plays that I found my familiarity with Shakespeare's version of Roman events interfering with Harris's version. Whereas I know enough about the true history of Richard III to be able to disregard Shakespeare's vilification, my knowledge of classical history is the province of my classicist daughter Charlotte. Sadly care of a two year old prevented her from accompanying me on this seven hour theatrical stint (nine hours with the meal break) or I dare say I would have some erudition to write about.

Harris has taken Mark Antony's early history of gambling debts and drunkenness and Joe Dixon's one note characterisation of Antony doesn't seem very different from his portrayal of Catiline, except for the long curly wig of course.

The Caesar and Mark Antony plays both descend into near farce. Caesar's triumphal return procession has him wearing a gold cloak longer than Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. There are jokes based on the immigrant Gauls and the Vestals, most of whom have to be heavily veiled men, look like walking standard lamps.

Caesar's assassination takes places and one of the Brutuses is a dithering wimp. Can this be the noblest Roman of them all? Apparently Shakespeare muddled up Decimus Brutus (Andrew Langtree) and Marcus Junius Brutus (John Dougall) in his play. Cicero's interactions with Octavian (Oliver Johnstone) allow us to judge the young deified Emperor Augustus in the making, showing a skill for about turns in his vowed commitment for reconciliation or to hunt down the conspirators responsible for his uncle's death.

In the final play the direction seems to return to a more plausible scenario than the comic relief of 4 and 5. A finely choreographed battle sequence has the Testudo formation illustrated with the red shields protecting the soldiers on all sides. Cicero's faux pas about Octavian, the quip, "raised, praised and erased" is paid for in bad will. The plays end with a less than grisly assassination of Cicero and we don’t really see Antony's wife, Fulvia (Eloise Secker) pull out his tongue from his disembodied head and stab it repeatedly with her hair pin (pin of her brooch here) for so often having spoken against her husband.

Although I really enjoyed Part I and less so Part 2, the immense professionalism of the RSC under Gregory Doran has to be acknowledged here in mounting such a spectacular theatrical event in London's West End.

Search CurtainUp in the box below Back to Curtainup Main Page

Written by Robert Harris
Adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton
Directed by Gregory Doran
Starring: Richard McCabe, Joseph Kloska, Siobhan Redmond, Jade Croot, Christopher Saul, Joe Dixon, Peter de Jersey, Oliver Johnstone, Nicholas Armfield, Eloise Secker
With: Paul Kemp, Daniel Burke, David Nicolle, Guy Burgess, Andrew Langtree, Patrick Romer, Simon Thorp, Hywel Morgan, Nicholas Boulton, Michael Grady-Hall, Patrick Knowles, Alisha Williams, John Dougall, Tom Brownlee, Scott Westwood
Design: Anthony Ward
Sound Design: Claire Windsor
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Composer: Paul Englishby
Movement: Anna Morrissey
Fight /Director: Terry King
Video Design: RSC Video Department
Running time: Part I Three hours 30 minutes with two intervals, Part II 3 hours 20 minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 0844 482 5151
Booking to 8th September 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 30th June 2018 performances at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6AR (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
Index of reviewed shows still running

Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
  • I agree with the review of Imperium
  • I disagree with the review of Imperium
  • The review made me eager to see Imperium
Click on the address link E-mail:
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):

Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email. . .also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.

For a feed to reviews and features as they are posted at to your reader
Curtainup at Facebook . . . Curtainup at Twitter

©Copyright 2018, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from