Tag Archives: Mike Poulton

Play Politics

IMPERIUM Parts One and Two

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th January, 2018


Dramatist Mike Poulton took it upon himself to adapt Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy for the stage, condensing the action into two evenings.  In six one-hour chunks, we rattle through the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, along with many other characters, while our main man Cicero (Richard McCabe) weathers every storm.  It’s like binge-watching a TV series.

For the most part, the action is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s faithful slave/secretary (an agreeable Joseph Kloska) while McCabe’s Cicero comes across as a blend of Zero Mostel and Ian Hislop.  There is plenty of humour here, irony and barbed remarks and, inevitably, parallels with the modern world abound.  “Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people,” Cicero observes, pithily explaining our current government.  The phrase, “The will of the people” is bandied around as though it excuses everything.

Peter de Jersey is a volatile Caesar, friendly and menacing – often at the same time, while David Nicolle is a suitably weasely Crassus and Michael Grady-Hall a ranting Cato.  Oliver Johnstone’s Rufus gets his moment to shine in a court scene, while Pierro Niel-Mee is roguishly appealing as the naughty Clodius.  It’s not just Cicero who has the gift of oratory, it turns out.

Siobhan Redmond brings humorous haughtiness as Cicero’s Mrs, Terentia – vulnerability too.  There are many performances to enjoy: Joe Dixon’s brutish Catiline, Hywel Morgan’s drunkard Hybrida, Nicholas Boulton’s bombastic Celer… and I especially like Eloise Secker’s forthright Fulvia.

The precarious, perilous nature of political life in ancient Rome is an ever-present menace and there are moments of ritualised action that heighten the differences between our culture and theirs, while the motives and behaviours of the characters reinforce the notion that human nature doesn’t change and politicians are some of the worst people.

The action is played out on an all-purpose set, designed by Anthony Ward: a flight of wide steps leads to a mosaic backdrop – a huge pair of eyes watches all.  Above, a large sphere is suspended, onto which projections and colours are cast to complement the action.  Yvonne Milnes’s costumes immerse us in the period while the lowering of the stage to floor level sort of democratises the plays: as observers, we are often addressed directly as members of the Senate.

Part Two sees the assassination of Julius Caesar (spoiler, sorry!) and the resulting fall-out.  The conspirators bump him off with no strategy in place for a new regime.  Et tu, Brexit?

Oliver Johnstone reappears, this time as Caesar’s successor, Octavian, youthful but determined.  When he coldly asserts, “I am a god” it’s a chilling moment, and we glimpse the kind of emperor he will become.  Pierro Niel-Mee is back as a serious Agrippa, a perfect contrast to his Clodius from Part One.  In this performance, Nicholas Boulton is excellent as roaring drunk Mark Antony, a hothead impotent to prevent the rise of cold Octavian.   Siobhan Redmond has an effective and amusing cameo as Brutus’s mother (bringing to mind the Life of Brian’s Biggus Dickus who ‘wanks as high as any in Wome’).

Once you get used to the host of characters coming and going, this is a hugely enjoyable watch, funny, thrilling and sometimes shocking.  On the one hand it makes me glad that politicians of today, bad as they may be, don’t go around burning each other’s houses down or lopping each other’s heads off.  On the other, it makes me wish they would.

It has become usual practice for the RSC to broadcast to cinemas its productions in the main house and then sell them on DVD for home viewing.  Productions in the Swan are not preserved in this way, which in a lot of instances is a great shame.  All that will remain of a good production will be what Cicero claims is left of any good man: what is written down.


Joseph Kloska and Richard McCabe (Photo: Ikin Yum)


Execution is Everything


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 20th October, 2016


Mike Poulton’s masterful adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic cracks along at a fair pace, distilling the novel into a couple of hours’ traffic on the stage.  It’s a powerful piece of storytelling.  Domestic scenes are interspersed with vignettes of violence as the mob takes over Paris and wreaks vengeance on the aristocracy.  The French Revolution is the backdrop and the antagonist in this story of love and sacrifice.

Jacob Ifan is Charles Darnay who, despite having renounced his inherited title, finds himself in shtuck with the French tribunal.  Ifan is handsome and reserved – except when he is talking politics and then the character’s passion comes to the fore.  By contrast, Joseph Timms’s Sydney Carton is a livelier presence, a spirited nihilist whose swagger only serves to advertise his lack of self-esteem.  Timms is charismatic, commanding our attention.  Carton boxes clever to save Darnay’s neck on more than one occasion.  (Carton…boxes…? Suit yourself!)

Both men are in love with Lucie Manette (an elegantly emotional Shanaya Rafaat) – and external events conspire to bring the triangle to a devastating denouement.

There is sterling support from Patrick Romer as Dr Manette, Michael Garner as faithful Mr Lorry, and Jonathan Dryden Taylor amuses as servant/bodyguard Jerry, while Harry Attwell makes an impression as Stryver The ensemble is afforded many chances for some character cameos: Sue Wallace’s Pamela Keating and Rebecca Birch’s Jenny Herring stick in the mind – Dickens certainly knew how to give voice to the lower orders. Villain of the piece, Madame Defarge (Noa Bodner) personifies the kind of thinking that urges Brexit voting idiots to denounce all opposition as traitors.  The red of her skirt is a rare splash of colour in Ruth Hall’s muted costume palette, suggesting the bloodshed of those terrible times.

Mike Britton’s set evokes the Ancien Régime in decline, and Paul Keogan’s lighting intensifies the drama, contrasting dimness with moments of sharpness.  James Dacre directs, using contrasts for clarity and building a sense of a world in turmoil encroaching on individual lives.  The treatment of the poor – as typified here by Christopher Hunter’s cruel marquis – is facing resurgence in Britain today as the ruling classes demonise those less fortunate.  The shadow of the guillotine looms large in this story – perhaps we are overdue our own revolution.  Nobility, says the play, is nothing to do with title, wealth or privilege but is rather something within us – well, some of us.

To cap it all, Rachel Portman’s original score is striking, stirring, melancholic and tragic.

It all adds up to an excellent evening, an absorbing, gripping and moving production of which the Royal & Derngate in Northampton and the Touring Consortium Theatre Company should be very proud.

Great stuff and – if I might use the term – well executed!


A tale of two, sitting: Joseph Timms, Rebecca Birch and Jacob Ifan

Well Executed


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th January, 2014


The second half of this double bill with Wolf Hall, picks up the action a few years later, and it’s as if I haven’t left the theatre from the previous night; it is very much a continuation of mood, style and story.  But what transpires in this instalment is that events become more serious, the implications and effects wider-reaching.  Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) is now a prime mover and shaker, tasked by King Henry to annul the marriage to Anne Boleyn.  Cromwell instigates an investigation into Boleyn’s household and the company she keeps, and there is a sense of mounting tension as each interview brings us closer to the outcome we know must transpire and matters come to a head.  Mike Poulton’s adaptation somehow keeps the history fresh.  We don’t see Boleyn’s execution, but the executioner rehearsing, explaining what his job entails, is enough for us to stage the scene in our imaginations.  This is all the more chilling.

Miles is astonishingly good and is supported by an excellent ensemble of major and minor players.  Nathaniel Parker shows us more colours of the ageing king, even eliciting our sympathy, bringing a wealth of humanity to the despotic monster.  Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn is a strident figure – I would have liked to see a little more vulnerability at times.  Nicholas Shaw impresses as Harry Percy, embittered and facing death.  Daniel Fraser’s Gregory has grown up – as Cromwell’s son he is a chink in his father’s armour, as Cromwell pursues his relentless Machiavellian plot to avenge the downfall and demise of Cardinal Wolsey (who appears as a ghost a few times, a conscience and confidant).

Cromwell’s rise to the top is at the expense of his compassion.  There is a message here: the acquisition of power costs at a personal level.

Nick Powell’s sound design enriches the action on the bare stage: we can envisage the baying mob, an offstage jousting tournament – the entire show is presented with such economy, the actors are allowed to bring us the story in a direct and evocative manner.  The play concludes with Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour (a very funny Leah Brotherhead) and it feels like there should be more episodes to cover her fate and the other three wives to come…  I hope Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton have set their quills to work.

Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) Photo: Keith Pattison

Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) Photo: Keith Pattison

Tudor Looking Glass


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 28th January, 2014


When I heard the RSC were adapting Hilary Mantel’s novels of doorstep proportion, I wondered if they had bitten off more than they could Tudor, but then I saw that it was Mike Poulton who was doing the adapting – he gave us a very enjoyable Canterbury Tales several years ago – so I knew we were in safe hands.

The first instalment covers much the same ground as Shakespeare’s very late play Henry VIII (or the first series of gaudy TV drama The Tudors).  There is a sense of knowing, even foreboding about the enterprise; we know on whose side history’s favours will fall so there is plenty of nudge nudge wink wink dramatic irony at play.

It is also very funny.  There is wryness to the dialogue and the characters are on the whole plain-speaking.  We do not have to wade through dense verse or po-faced metaphor.  The action is immediately accessible and with a three-hours running time, it needs to be!

Central to it all is Thomas Cromwell, a kind of go-to guy par excellence.  His colourful past has given him the skills necessary to get just about anything done.  And so he climbs the precarious ladder of Henry’s court.  When we first meet him he is in the employ of the infamous Cardinal Wolsey (usually depicted as more of an out-and-out villain in this type of thing).  Paul Jesson is very funny as this worldly clergyman.  By contrast, John Ramm’s Thomas More is shown less warmly, very different from the admirable and unswerving man of principle in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons.

The whole cast is very strong but I’m going to be churlish and single out a few for special mentions.  Daniel Fraser is sweet as Cromwell’s son Gregory, playing youth and innocence convincingly despite his full-grown adult frame.  Pierro Niel Mee is bloody hilarious as Cromwell’s rat-catching French servant Christophe, and Nathaniel Parker is effortlessly majestic and charismatic as King Henry.  I also enjoyed Oscar Pearce’s bejewelled fop George Boleyn and Lucy Briers’s Hispanic intensity as Katherine of Aragon.

The costumes are perfect, conveying the period in lieu of scenery and there is atmospheric music from composer Stephen Warbeck.

Cromwell hardly leaves the stage, which means we get to see his public, at-work face and his private grief, in an excellent turn by Ben Miles.  Jeremy Herrin’s direction keeps the action moving.  Cromwell only has to turn on his heels and the scene has changed, and there are some lovely touches and understated moments.

The show ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, compelling you to come back for the sequel.  And I most definitely shall!


He’s ‘Enery the Eighth he is, he is – Nathaniel Parker (Photo: Keith Pattison)