IMPERIUM Pt. 2 – THE DICTATOR at the Swan, Stratford

I just experienced an exhilarating dramatic experience and lost several old friends – all in one afternoon.

With the 1,600 page Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy and the first three hours of Mike Poulton’s dramatisation digested, today I saw the final part. And because of the plays’ narrative strength, with Gregory Doran directing a sterling cast, I now feel quite bereft, separated from the ancient world. In particular from Cicero, the principled but flawed defender of liberty and Tiro his faithful secretary.

The plays, which are complete and coherent in themselves, centre on sections of the books. Pt II finds Cicero retired, but drawn back to politics with the assassination of dictator Julius Caesar, attempting to make Rome a republic again. The dithering of the republican assassins allows Caesar supporter Mark Antony to impose his own military dictatorship. In response Cicero allies himself with Julius’s 19 year old heir, Octavian, in the belief that he can control him,

The dramatisation hones in on only small sections of the novels but driven by Paul Englishby’s dramatic music, generates a constant stream of events, full of energy, threat, near panic and truly knife-edge tension, in an age when a knife in the back was not a metaphor. Designer Anthony Ward sets it all admirably, via a steep flight of steps, a mosaic backdrop of staring eyes, an overhanging, ever-changing globe of the known world and a front stage trapdoor. Tiro holds it all together as narrator and – in contrast to the books – a major contributor to the action, played by Joseph Kloska with endearing long-suffering and irony.

We know Rome – or think we do – via Shakespeare. Cicero’s writings contemporary with the events are notable for many differences. Brutus ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, aptly played by John Dougall, majors only in indecision. Antony is a bestial drunk, whose speech at Caesar’s funeral is more an animal cry of grief than calculated crowd psychology. Not a sign in Joe Dixon’s excessive performance of the greatness, Shakespeare later examined in decline. This Antony is the puppet of his evil, scheming and screaming wife Fulvia, enjoyably embodied by Eloise Secker.

With the looks of an Eton six-former, Oliver Johnstone as the patronised Octavia, draws out the masked cold calculation and ruthlessness that ultimately see him triumph. He at least has the excuse of believing himself to be a god. In contrast Peter de Jersey as Julius Caesar, outwardly charming and friendly, is self-deluding, believing that his serial acts of treachery where necessary reactions to events.

The two rulers reserve a special respect and frankness for Cicero as an intellectual equal, but also an affection and admiration for his purpose. And in Richard McCabe’s remarkable performance we love him too: greedy, duplicitous, finally vanquished as a consequence of his vanity, we see in him human weakness like our own. But hidden by self-mocking, a dedication to truth and justice, which will forever shine out of the pages of ancient history.    ★★★★☆     Derek Briggs   18th January 2018