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The rise and gall of Rome's master schemer

Imperium Part I (Conspirator), Swan Theatre, Stratford until February 10.

Marcus Tullius Cicero is a man who loves the feel of political power. Indeed he revels in it. In becoming Consul, he's fond of saying, he has 'the unanimous vote of the Roman people'. And it doesn't get any better than that.

Why wouldn't he find some pleasure in where he's got to? He has no glorious military experience, no illustrious heritage, no vast fortune, to take him to the centre of the seething snakepit that is Rome, just a natural gift for oratory and a fine political and legal mind that he's had to develop and refine himself. What could possibly go wrong?

It's the starting point for the Royal Shakespeare Company's mighty adaptation of Robert Harris's trilogy of Cicero novels and the man himself is at the peak of his game.

So too is the masterful Richard McCabe, who plays him as by turns principled, calculating, brave and timid. And not for a moment in the three-and-a-half hours that follows does he allow that keen intelligence to slip or the focus to fall away from him. A performance of extraordinary and compelling concentration.

Finely wrought as Harris's novels are, it could all have been a distant and pretty complicated history lesson brought to stage. But adaptor Mike Poulton and director Gregory Doran have found ways to build momentum and develop character among a cast of seemingly dozens and many, many scene changes.

McCabe as Cicero has wonderful support from a steely Siobhan Redmond as his formidable wife Terentia, whose ancestors saw off Hannibal, and from Joseph Kloska, who plays his super-attentive secretary Tiro, the narrator of the piece, with gusto and some delicious comic timing. I haven't seen a more menacing yet quietly watchful Julius Caesar than Peter De Jersey's, while Joe Dixon brings huge presence to Cicero's chief aristocratic rival Cataline, a man who in his brutal derangement cannot quite believe that this upstart has bested him.

No opportunity for a contemporary comic aside is missed either. Is that a Donald Trump orange quiff that sits atop great Pompey's head, and is it pure coincidence that Cicero's quip that stupid people tend to vote for stupid people brings the audience out in a rash of applause?

There is a marble bust surviving from antiquity that is supposed to be the real Cicero. It looks a little like Richard McCabe and I've no doubt at all that the actor brings more than just a physical resemblance to this most intriguing of Romans. Bring on Part II.

Photo of Richard McCabe (Cicero) and cast, by Ikin Yum

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