Tale of power and pol­i­tics in An­cient Rome

Nuneaton Telegraph - - FRONT PAGE -

“BIG cities are both hate­ful and en­tic­ing,” Gilbert Highet wrote in Po­ets In A Land­scape. ‘‘Men are of­ten mis­er­able when liv­ing in them and yet bet­ter the vi­o­lence, the cor­rup­tion and the charm, the con­flicts, ag­o­nies and ad­ven­tures than the mori­bund calm of a vil­lage or the petty con­cerns of a lit­tle town.”

Highet knew his stuff – at least as far as An­cient Rome and its elite was con­cerned.

He un­der­stood the yearn­ing for power and the re­gret that of­ten came with pos­sess­ing it, and I think he would prob­a­bly have en­joyed the Ro­man plays cur­rently run­ning in two parts at the RSC.

Based on the Cicero tril­ogy by Robert Har­ris (adapted by Mike Poul­ton for the theatre) this huge tapestry of anx­ious, am­bi­tious politi­cians and hang­ers-on is, for the most part, en­gross­ing, with that well-sea­soned ac­tor Richard McCabe lead­ing this greedy, treach­er­ous Ro­man wolf pack as Cicero, the his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter whose me­moirs serve as the scaffolding upon which the plays are built.

Ini­tially, it is not easy to de­cide whether or not this is a send-up of the last days of the Ro­man Em­pire and those who peo­pled it, or a rea­son­ably straight ac­count of his­tor­i­cal facts.

With Cae­sar’s well-known as­sas­si­na­tion (Peter De Jersey man­ag­ing his blood­stained writhings with con­sum­mate skill) we get his adopted son Oc­tavius (Oliver Johnstone in a fas­ci­nat­ing per­for­mance as a 19-year-old with the po­lit­i­cal savvy of an oc­to­ge­nar­ian) get­ting much of his adop­tive fa­ther’s wealth, while Cicero is left hop­ing in vain that Rome will re­vert once more to a well-gov­erned state.

The plot thick­ens, and you look for­ward to the in­ter­val as Ro­mans rush in and out, threat­en­ing dis­rup­tion or conniving to­gether un­til Mark Antony (Joe Dixon bluff, bru­tal and slightly de­ranged) ap­pears, drop­ping the F-word all over the place.

And then the pro­duc­tion sud­denly leaves the dol­drums and picks up speed.

Cicero feels he has had enough and de­cides to ditch pol­i­tics and re­tire to Athens to study phi­los­o­phy.

Which he doesn’t be­cause Rome and its po­lit­i­cal fas­ci­na­tions is a drug which he can­not re­sist – par­tic­u­larly if he is about to be at the heart of a pro­posed plan.

But if Antony is look­ing am­bi­tiously for war against Rome, Cicero wants peace in this volatile city and at­tacks Antony mer­ci­lessly in the Se­nate as a traitor.

What ini­tially seemed to prom­ise a long and mildly te­dious evening, turns out to be ex­traor­di­nar­ily good value.

The his­tor­i­cal twists and turns of the po­lit­i­cal ma­noeu­vring are sea­soned with laugh­ter.

Well di­rected by Gre­gory Do­ran, the play is well-dressed and well-set with splen­did uni­forms and a sense of pe­riod.

For McCabe it is a per­sonal tri­umph and the com­pany de­served a stand­ing ova­tion, which is what they re­ceived.

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