Review: Imperium II – Dictator, Gielgud Theatre

In which Imperium II: Dictator continues a compelling look at (Roman) politics at the Gielgud Theatre but in which I also feel obliged to point out just how male-heavy Imperium skews 

“We are at the mercy of the people of Rome”

Previously on Imperium

  • we enjoyed ourselves
  • we struggled to differentiate between the many names beginning with C
  • we puzzled at why people wore their togas with one bit draped impractically over a forearm
  • we marvelled at how shiny everyone’s leather sandals seemed to be
  • and we grieved at how woefully the wonderful Siobhán Redmond was underused, at how indeed the whole production treats women

The second part of this summer’s Roman epic – Imperium II: Dictator – continues much in the same vein as the first. Mike Poulton’s adaptation capturing much of the sweeping vistas of Robert Harris’ Cicero novels, and Richard McCabe excelling as that noble Cicero who increasingly reveals himself as all-too–hubristically-human.  

But as we reach the seventh hour of drama in this testosterone-heavy world, you can’t help but feel that the women, both of the time and of this company, are relatively hard done by. Between the male gaze of Harris to Poulton to Doran to McCabe, the relentless focus on the political over the personal doesn’t give us much sense of Cicero the man versus Cicero the politician.

This is exacerbated by brief scenes which ultimately feel like lip service as Cicero is reunited with the wife and daughter he abandoned (Siobhán Redmond and Jade Croot doing their utmost best to flesh out these parts) and discovers the trials they’ve suffered in his absence. For all the impact they have on his character, further mentions are fleeting indeed, they’re sadly inconsequential.

That’s not to undermine the strong character work offered up here. Peter de Jersey’s portrayal of Julius Caesar’s doomed trajectory is compelling, Joe Dixon is a marvellously unpredictable Mark Antony and I really enjoyed the way Oliver Johnstone’s Octavian grew into his Machiavellian birthright (and also the homoerotic undertones – or overtones… – of his relationship with his faithful Agrippa).

I did enjoy Imperium, very much so for the most part and over the course of a two-show day, it is rarely sags, remaining impressively exciting and gripping. But as one of our premier theatre companies, Doran’s RSC needs to do better at representation, maintaining this kind of imbalance feels irresponsible.    

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes (with 2 intervals)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Imperium II: Dictator is booking at the Gielgud Theatre in rep with Imperium I: Conspirator until 8th September

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