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Review: Imperium, Parts I and II (Swan Theatre)

Gregory Doran directs Mike Poulton's adaptation of Robert Harris' best-selling Cicero trilogy

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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The story of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and the collapse of the Roman Republic will be familiar to anyone who has seen the relevant Shakespeare plays or did a bit of ancient history at school. But, as Winston Churchill famously didn't actually say, history is written by the victors – or, in Shakespeare's case, rewritten to suit the dramatic requirements of the plot.

What the RSC is serving up as an alternative to the festive offering of A Christmas Carol in the main house is an alternative to the popular view of these stories, courtesy of the Roman writer and politician Cicero. To be slightly more accurate, in fact, it's a Ciceronian take on the tale as seen through the eyes of the novelist Robert Harris, via the interpretation of playwright adaptor Mike Poulton.

And if you think that's confusing, try explaining the machinations of Rome's senate, generals, patricians and plebeians – many of whom share the forename Caius – across more than seven hours of performance. Rome was dedicated to the pursuit of glory: Gregory Doran's production of Poulton's colossal version of Harris' three-novel epic covers itself with its own kind of glory, for a multitude of reasons.

First, the sheer scale of the enterprise inspires awe. Distilling the original trilogy into six hour-long plays glued together as two shows is a mammoth undertaking in itself. The fact that Poulton does so with his customary combination of verbal dexterity, clear storytelling and hefty doses of leavening wit only serves to accentuate the brilliance of the undertaking.

Doran, who is using this double bill as an epitaph to this year's Rome season of Shakespeare plays, adds his own particularly fine brand of clear thinking to keep the potentially complex and indigestible narrative from ever running into turgid backwaters or slowing to a fidget-inducing pace. Instead, the story is vividly transparent and beautifully portrayed. Even moments of inevitable context-setting are treated as a meta-theatrical joke: "This is getting very expositional," Cicero warns his amanuensis Tiro.

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Anthony Ward's stunning re-crafting of The Swan auditorium resembles a Roman amphitheatre, turning the audience into complicit senators, and some perfectly judged lighting and music from Mark Henderson and Paul Englishby respectively add drama and nuance to the spectacle.

Among the performances, Peter de Jersey stands out as an ambitious, wily Julius Caesar, while Pierro Niel-Mee offers two impressive characterisations, first as the bisexual aristocrat Clodius and later as Agrippa, the vicious young thug of a lieutenant working alongside Caesar's heir Octavian. But the truth is that the whole extensive ensemble plays crucial parts in unfolding the vast canvas intelligibly and with a relentless drive to entertain.

At the heart of these two shows is a double act that thoroughly deserves their standing ovation, for tireless consistency as much as for their unquestionable performing talents. Richard McCabe and Joseph Kloska play Cicero and his secretary with a joyous complementary verve, sparking off each other explosively and portraying an interdependent respect and love that pervades every scene. And they are in pretty much every scene.

It's an extraordinary feat by both actors. With a total running time of around seven hours, coupled with countless lines and innumerable cues to master, neither puts a foot wrong. From daft, knowing asides to genuinely emotional depths, both bring a range and sense of roundedness to their roles which carry the productions on a wave of confidence, bravado and performing fireworks. If they aren't in line to share some best actor awards over the next few months, then there'll have been a serious miscarriage of justice.

As with his clever reinvention of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies a few years back, Poulton puts these dense historical epics onto the stage with all the panache and pace of a Netflix box set. The television producers must be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a new six-part blockbuster all ready for the making.

Imperium, Parts I and II run at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 10 February 2018.