Tale of power and politics in Ancient Rome
“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.