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Imperium I: Conspirator and Imperium II: Dictator | Review

RSCs IMPERIUM Part II Dictator - Credit Manuel Harlan
RSCs IMPERIUM Part II Dictator – Credit Manuel Harlan

Everything about Imperium is imperious and peerless. The historian is Tom Holland our foremost classic scholar, from whose writings Robert Harris based his novels the Cicero trilogy – Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator- the adapter for the theatre is Mike Poulton (Wolf Hall), the company is the RSC, the director is Gregory Doran. That’s about as good as it gets.

Mike Poulton has brilliantly adapted the trilogy of novels for the stage. It’s in two parts: 1. Conspirator and 2. Dictator. Each part is divided into three one hour acts. So it’s actually six acts in six hours. I watched both parts on Thursday (yes I missed the England game) and can thoroughly recommend seeing Imperium in one day. It’s an exhilarating way in which to immerse oneself in the world of Roman politics. And because human nature hasn’t changed – we have the same DNA as the Romans – everything is recognisable and pertinent. Imperium is about power. How to get it, how to hold onto it, what to do with it and what to do when one no longer has it. It’s utterly fascinating. It’s The West Wing in Sandals on the Tiber.

Cicero (Richard McCabe) was a lawyer, politician, writer but most importantly the greatest orator of his age. The director Gregory Doran and his team have come up with a masterstroke. We the audience become members of the Roman Senate sitting in on the debates between Cicero and the Senators. This Senate/theatre analogy creates one space linking the stage to the back row of the upper circle. The Senate and the people of Rome are brought together in one continuous space. SPQR in action. We the audience are participants in the drama. The effect is electrifying. The steps of the stage lead all the way down to the front row of the stalls and so when Cicero (Richard McCabe) walks down and makes his case we feel that he is appealing to us for our votes.

The set, lighting, music, costumes and choreography are superb. They help to recreate Rome in stunning set pieces. For example, the back wall of the stage is dominated by a giant mosaic of a face but especially of two eyes which look down on us. Is it god looking down? Is it the Dictator? Is it Cicero? Who knows, but the effect is disturbingly unnerving. For not only are we looking but are in turn being looked at. The set pieces are wonderful. The combination of lighting, martial music, The Roman eagle and SPQR standards, the hydraulic stage floor which brings both people and bodies up and down as if from the underworld together create a thrillingly atmospheric experience. The song the soldiers sing on Julius Caesars Triumph is just one example of such a set piece. Like football hooligans, they chant and gloat “… conquer Gaul and shag their girls”. It’s not pretty but probably historically accurate? Look out for the ceremony of the Vestal Virgins it’s a wonderful combination of the mystery of the pagan cults and the grotesque perversity of the Roman elite at its worse. Another set piece of mesmerising power is the Hamlet-like ghost of Julius Caesar rising from the depths, moving like one of those performance statue artists in Trafalgar Square, demanding vengeance.

The acting is superb from a cast of outstanding performers. Richard McCabe as Cicero is on stage for the best part of six hours. His performance is remarkable. He creates an utterly convincing portrait of a politician and orator who can see the game from every perspective and knows which move to make. The play contrasts the oratory of Cicero versus the violence of Caesar. Ultimately the play is asking the question – is the voice/the pen mightier than the sword? Is Cicero mightier than Caesar? The rule of law or the rule of the sword? That question is one we struggle with today. Imperium brings this urgent question alive for us today. We still face it. The difference is we have nuclear weapons the Romans did not.

5 Star Rating

Review by John O’Brien

Following their acclaimed sell-out season in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s IMPERIUM plays, based on the bestselling Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris, transfer to London’s Gielgud Theatre for a strictly limited season from Thursday 14th June.

Told through the watchful eyes of Cicero’s loyal secretary, IMPERIUM I: CONSPIRATOR chronicles how the great orator’s early success unwittingly paves the way for a brutal and bloody end to the Republic.

With Rome in chaos at the beginning of IMPERIUM II: DICTATOR, Cicero must use all his brilliance to restore the power of the Senate from the civic mob and their would-be Emperor: one Julius Caesar.

Featuring Olivier and Tony Award-winner Richard McCabe (The Audience) as Cicero and Joseph Kloska (The Crown, RSC’s Written on the Heart) as Tiro, audiences can choose to enjoy the plays, from RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran and adapted by Mike Poulton (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), as one riveting theatrical event or two unmissable historical thrillers.

Important Information
BOOKING PERIOD: Until 8th September 2018
PERFORMANCE TIMES: Monday – Saturday 7.00pm and Wednesday & Saturday 1.30pm
RUNNING TIME: 3 hours 40 mins including two 15 minute intervals.


  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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