Tag Archives: Richard McCabe

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.

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Joseph Kloska and Richard McCabe (Photo: Ikin Yum)

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Old desire doth in his death bed lie

A TENDER THING
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 4th October, 2012


What if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t topped themselves? What if they had a long and happy life together? Ben Power’s new play re-invents the tale of the star-cross’d lovers, using Shakespeare’s words. We meet the couple at the end of a long and happy marriage but tragedy stalks them. Juliet has a debilitating and terminal illness. Parting is not only a sweet sorrow but a creeping inevitability.

At first, the play seems a bit of a gimmick. With the script re-mixed, I was distracted by trying to place the lines from the original: which scene is that speech from? Who speaks those lines in the original? But, as the relationship between the two characters is revealed, I became able to sit back and take the play at face value.

Richard McCabe’s Romeo is a lovable old duffer. His raincoat makes him a bit like Graham Lister from Vic & Bob’s Fantasy Island. Beneath that, he sports a brown woollen suit, which, along with his hair and specs, adds to his nutty professor appearance. He shows people on the front row a photograph in his wallet and takes us back to a time before Juliet became bedridden with illness to a time when they would go dancing.

Kathryn Hunter’s Juliet is a bright-eyed little thing, retaining a girlish sense of fun in her later years. Hunter uses her remarkable physicality as a performer to portray Juliet’s decline. Their dancing becomes the daily routine of the carer and the cared-for; the actions speak at least as loudly as the famous words.

Lines like “I have forgot why I did call thee back” take on a new significance as Juliet begins to wane. She reveals, using a speech of the Nurse’s, that they had and lost a child. This speech is later repeated as Juliet succumbs to dementia and delirium. Hunter’s performance is powerful and striking, matched by McCabe’s patient and doting husband, his frustration and his anger.

They agree that when she is too far gone, he will assist her suicide. Here the herbs and the potion of the original come into (the) play. The morality of their decision and the action taken is not an issue. This is shown to be a private matter, an arrangement between two loved ones, without the brouhaha you would get in an issue-based drama.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson dilutes the encroaching misery with moments of beauty, using music by John Woolf and movement direction by Jane Gibson: withered Juliet springs, in her imagination, from her wheelchair and dances around, full of vigour and life – in her mind at least.

Curiously, the play is depressing and uplifting, often in the same moment. It is grim and heart-warming. It shows there is a kind of plasticity to Shakespeare; you can bend him in order to shed new light on the human condition. The vaguely seashore setting, with only a chair or two and a free-standing door, indicate this is happening nowhere in particular but anywhere and everywhere. This is not a tragedy about a particular couple in a particular set of circumstances. This is the more general tragedy of our mortality. We reach old age if we’re lucky. If we have someone with whom to share our declining years, we are luckier still. But the inevitability of death, that irresistible force of nature – here symbolised by video footage of the sea – is coming for us all.