Cicero at the Gielgud: A Review

Whether this (admittedly bifurcated) play was 6 or 7 hours, I could not say. That itself is praise enough and those seeking brevity may stop reading here. Instead go see the play.

Now, as for myself, I am neither a habitual theatre goer nor especially well equipped to form listenable opinions. None of the English plays I have enjoyed most come from this, or even the previous, century. Boringly, predictably, I’m a fan of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson. I prefer medieval mystery plays to the likes of Pinter and Albee. So, bear that in mind.

I’m biased twice over, having also absolutely adored the books on which this play was based. Now, onward and downwards.

The play opens not, as does the first book, with Cicero still on the make, but after his election to the consulship. The vignette, Cicero playing amateur detective over a ritually sacrificed slave boy, will be familiar to any who have read Lustrum.

For a few moments I was perplexed. Surely this is a phenomenally bad idea? The first book, Imperium, is much the strongest after all. But then Tiro (Joseph Kloska) steps forth from the stage, breaking the forth wall, and everything fits very nicely indeed.

Playing Cicero can’t be easy, which makes it so astonishing that Richard McCabe moves from scene to scene with such incredible élan. From rhetorical flourish to soporific bore, he truly captures Cicero as Harris has drawn him. For the duration of the first play it’s hard to tell who the star is truly, Cicero or Tiro, but by the second play McCabe once again steals the show. He ages before eyes, sometimes scene by scene. “Is that…is that the same actor?” one of my companions asked. Quite.

The first play details with the Catlinarian conspiracy, the high point being the famous speech (quo usque tandem abutere…). Catalina, I thought a little…odd. He was presented shaven headed and jack-booted. A far cry from the Catalina either of history or, indeed, the novels. He constantly came across as a little hysteric and risible. This misses the entire point of the character. Fortunately, Joe Dixon returns as Mark Antony in the second play where he is brilliant.

(I can’t find any other way to fit this in the review but hats off to Nicholas Boulton’s portrayal of Celer.)

The second play, Dictator, ostensibly alludes to Caesar (played by Peter de Jersey), but always with a side glance at the future Augustus. In production terms, it features the best set piece of the dyad in Caesar’s triumph. Somehow everything worked here. The ridiculous flowing fabrics, the pretend armour, the playmobile chariots… with that insistent beat in the background and the stylised, almost forced, movements of the actors there was a real sense of ritual. I loved it.

When the final scene began to play out, I found myself surprisingly touched. The quotation from the Somnium Scipionis wasn’t just astute and apropos, it was moving. It didn’t just highlight important aspects of Cicero’s character, it served as a gentle reminder of how utterly important this man’s work (through Macrobius, Boethius, and then wider Western Europe) has been.

Now, because this needs to be said, the sour notes. Were I a meaner sort of crocodile I would here copy and paste the Roman view of actors (for that, see Beare) and their opinions. For every brilliant set piece, every time the chemistry between the cast compounds into something special, every delicate emotional scene…there’s a clumsy modern comment or parallel.

Pompey, who appears dressed as Trump, is a real let down and the titters in the audience at each Brexit/anti-populist joke were not always kind. Frankly, it was all a bit pretentious and thin blooded.

That scene with Caesar (you’ll know it, because you’ll see the play, won’t you?) was very perplexing and not at all in line with the rest. I mean, what the hell was going on? Even Plutarch would have left that on the cutting floor.

All in all, this was a brilliant way to spend an afternoon (and an evening), a great combination of spectacle, witty dialogue and great acting. If at times it feels like traversing a Ciceronian period, waiting for the verb to drop, well, we’ve only the great man himself to drop.

Cicero died on the 7th December 43 BC, The Philological Crocodile almost died two Saturdays ago but urges you to see the play. Imperium and Dictator are currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre, W1D.

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