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Review: RSC's Imperium I: Conspirator & Imperium II: Dictator, Gielgud Theatre or has Trump parody become a cliché?

This is in many ways a polished production but with most of the action set away from the battle fields it does start to feel like you are a spectator at a very long chess game.

According to chat in the toilet queue, when Boris Johnson came to see Imperium he commented to a member of staff that he'd come to see real politicians - or words to that effect. (Edit 10/7: Did the play inspire his recent metaphorical stabbing of Theresa May in the back?)

Richard McCabe and Peter De Jersey in the RSC's Imperium, Gielgud Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Given what unfolds in Imperium I: Conspirator and Imperium II: Dictator namely the deplorable display of ego and power lust it doesn't feel like it contrasts too greatly with the current UK political landscape. 

Technically two stand-alone plays, Conspirator and Dictator tell the story of Cicero (Richard McCabe) a lawyer turned politician during the rise and fall of Julius Caesar (Peter de Jersey).

Running gags

There are running gags and a continuity of characters with narrative arcs that thread through the two plays so I'm not sure how Dictator would stand up if you saw it in isolation.

Based on Robert Harris' Cicero novels, the story is told by Tiro (a charming Joseph Kloska) Cicero's sensible assistant and biographer.

He breaks the fourth wall drawing you along with amusing observations and recaps.

Conspirator follows Cicero's rise against all the odds. He is from a relatively humble background compared to his political peers but is clever, quick thinking and a skilled orator.

His wife Terentia (Siobhan Redmond) is wealthy and supports his ambitions.

Noble aims

He is a family man, dotes on his daughter Tullia (Jade Croot) and wants to ensure democracy endures and is corruption-free.

Noble aims but challenging in an environment where power and status are everything and money can easily sway.

Julius Caesar appears to be a man of the people but Cicero sees through him, sees his dangerous hunger for ultimate power.

Chess-like battle

A political battle to stop his rise ensues,  a chess-like game of moves and counter moves always trying to stay one step ahead of each other.

Cicero teeters on the edge of righteous bore, blinkered by his goals and past successes but by the end of Conspirator he has failed to stop Caesar and past decisions come back to haunt him. 

Siobhan Redmond in the RSC's Imperium, Gielgud Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Dictator, as the title suggests, explores life under Caesar, his overthrow and the resulting power vacuum but more of that in a moment.

Donald Trump references

In Conspirator the power plays and backstabbing may resonate with contemporary UK politics but equally, the Donald Trump references are laid on thick. 

You could easily draw subtle parallels between Caesar and Donald Trump - a man who seemingly represents the common man but is only really self-interested.

Similarly with Catiline (Joe Dixon), an explosive, military muscle-head with a strong resemblance to Shakespeare's Hotspur who is labelled as stupid, attracting the vote of 'stupid people'.

Lack of subtlety

Any semblance of subtlety dies when Pompey (Christopher Saul) arrives as a Trump caricature complete with bouffant blond hair which is the subject of jokes among his peers. 

Just a few months ago Julius Caesar was played with a strong resemblance to Trump at the Bridge Theatre but they weren't the first to think of it.

As a result, it is starting to become clichéd.

Cheap laughs

Similarly, thinly-veiled Brexit references are becoming the choice for cheap laughs.

The contemporary references continue in Dictator with a Corbyn-esque Brutus.

John Dougal looks like Corbyn dressed in a toga complete with mild-mannered, slightly bumbling and grey personality.

The problem is we are supposed to believe that Brutus commands legions but in this incarnation, I didn't.


Dictator sees Cicero with a re-invigorated energy but having learned little from his previous actions. 

He does toy with staying in quiet and relatively safe retirement but vanity leads him back into the political arena.

The only problem is the wheel has now been turning a long time - a constant switching of who is on top and who is on the bottom - and the clever machinations only carry you so far.

Oliver Johnstone in the RSC's Imperium, Gielgud Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It feels like the political tensions and sense of danger reach a peak somewhere in the first play and the second play never really recovers that.

Fresh life

The young, intelligent, precocious Octavian (Oliver Johnstone) - Caesar's named air - breaths some fresh life into proceedings as he deftly outmanoeuvres the patronising Cicero.

But the drunken, exuberant, near-parody performance by Joe Dixon as Mark Antony feels like a bum note. 

I couldn't help drawing comparisons with the RSC's last big historical/political two-parter: Wolf Hall.

Unfavourable comparison

Imperium doesn't compare favourably for one vital reason: Its protagonist lacks charisma.

Cicero is certainly clever but if you are going to spend 3+ hours, per play, with him, he needs a bit of charm too.

The tell-tale sign is the lack of any feeling when he meets his end.

Imperium's potency perhaps lies in the questions it raises about democracy and the love/hate relationship those in power have with it.

Chess spectator

This is in many ways a polished production but with most of the action set away from the battlefield, it does start to feel like you are a spectator at a very long chess game.

I'm giving it three stars.

Imperium I: Conspirator is three hours and 40 minutes including two intervals and Imperium II: Dictator is three hours and 15 minutes including two intervals.

Both plays run in rep at the Gielgud Theatre until September 8, see the RSC websites for details and tickets.