Tag Archives: Pierro Niel-Mee

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)


One Man, Two Governments


The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th April, 2017


Working in collaboration with Hull Truck Theatre, the RSC brings us this new play from writer Richard Bean – of One Man, Two Guvnors renown.  It’s the eve of the Civil War and the country is already divided.  In Beverley, Sir John Hotham is torn.  Should he support the King or Parliament?  He flipflops between sides, playing each against the other, until his equivocations overtake him and he is arrested and – well, spoiler alert: the play begins with his execution.  Knowing Hotham’s fate from the off removes suspense but his path to the chopping block is a twisted and entertaining one.

As the double-dealing Hotham, Mark Addy gives a star turn, brimming with Northern bluster and human failings, like a Tory jumping ship from Leave to Remain and back again.  This is One Man, Two Guvnors in period costume.  Caroline Quentin is his cooler-headed wife (the latest in a long line) but nonetheless funny.  Sarah Middleton is a scream as their daughter, Frances, a giddy, histrionic young girl tearing around and even rolling into the laps of the front row.  In contrast, her brother Durand (Pierro Niel-Mee) is straight-laced and academic – until his own ardour is aroused, of course.  Canny servant Connie (Laura Elsworthy) and decrepit old pantaloon Drudge (an unrecognisable Danielle Bird) complete the household, embodying dry wit and physical clowning respectively.

There is a double act of young suitors in the shape of James, Duke of York (Jordan Metcalfe) and Prince Rupert of the Rhein (Rowan Polonski) who, for reasons of plot, dress as lady fishmongers.  Both Metcalfe and Polonski are appealing presences and very funny.  Also good fun is Ben Goffe as King Charles himself, mounted on a hobby horse – Goffe also makes an impression as the ghostly figure of a young girl murdered for breaking a vase.

Bean populates his five-act comedy with stock characters, making a farce of historical events and peppering the dialogue with sharp relevance.  Hypocrites who seek to further their own ends at the expense of integrity – they should meet Hotham’s fate!   The religious and the spiritual also come in for a lambasting.  The puritanical Pelham (Neil D’Souza) and the hedonist Saltmarsh (Matt Sutton) are held up as excessive figures – the comedy arises from the exposure of weakness and appetites common to humans and both celebrates and mocks our foibles.

Director Phillip Breen pays attention to fine detail as well as broad comic playing.  At times the action is chaotic – or seemingly so, as choreographed chases and fights break out.  The acts are separated by rousing songs (by Grant Olding) performed live and on stage.  Phill Ward is in excellent voice with his stirring agit-prop anthems that bring to mind the songs of recent folk-rock group The Levellers.

The show is consistently funny in a theatrically traditional way but it is more than a farcical reconstruction; it speaks to us directly.  We are today in a divided country.  We are caught up in epoch-changing political events – we can only hope that, unlike Hotham, we don’t lose our heads about it.

Hypocrite pete le may

Mark Addy as Hotham (Photo: Pete Le May)