Mike Poulton’s Imperium: The Cicero Plays is a cycle of six historical plays about the Roman statesman and orator, Cicero, in the first century BC, adapted from Robert Harris's trilogy of novels, Imperium (2006), Lustrum (2009) and Dictator (2015), collectively known as The Cicero Trilogy.
The adaptation was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on 16 November 2017, with the six linked plays presented across two performances entitled Imperium I: Conspirator and Imperium II: Dictator. The production subsequently transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End from 14 June 2018.
In the plays, the action is presented largely from the perspective of Tiro, Cicero’s loyal secretary, who announces near the start of the first play that he is writing a life of Cicero, the greatest orator of his age – 'some say of any age'. The narrative presents a backstage view of Ancient Rome at its most bloody and brutal, as Cicero devotes all his energy and cunning to preserve the rule of law, and defend Rome’s Republic against the predatory attacks of political rivals, discontented aristocrats, and would-be military dictators.
In Imperium I: Conspirator, Cicero is elected consul by a unanimous vote of the Roman people. Catiline, his aristocratic rival, is furious in defeat and refuses to accept the results of the election. He swears a blood oath to destroy Cicero, murder the government, and take Rome by force. Behind the conspiracy, Cicero suspects, lurks Julius Caesar – young, ruthless, popular with the Roman mob and greedy for absolute power. As law and order begins to break down, who controls the mob controls Rome: Cicero, Catiline, Caesar or the charming but vicious playboy, Publius Clodius?
In Imperium II: Dictator, Cicero has retired from politics. Julius Caesar – dictator, and commander of Rome’s armies – is assassinated. Cicero sees his death as an opportunity to restore the Republic but the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, dither as power in Rome begins to fall into the lap of Mark Antony. Determined to prevent Antony imposing a military dictatorship on Rome, Cicero forms an unlikely alliance with the 19-year-old great-nephew and heir of Julius Caesar. Confident that he can control the boy and use him to destroy Mark Antony, Cicero sets out to save the Republic.
In a preface to the published playscript, Mike Poulton writes: 'The plays Robert [Harris], Greg [Doran, director and RSC Artistic Director] and I identified, lying below the surface of the trilogy, concerned Cicero’s destruction of the power-crazed and vicious Sergius Catiline, and Cicero’s attempt to prevent Mark Antony from succeeding to Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. The background to all six linked plays is Cicero’s duel with Caesar, and its aftermath. It’s a story of natural humanity, and good laws versus military ambition. Cicero succeeds in one case, and achieves a partial success in the other. But this flawed master of political oratory carries with him the seeds of his own destruction. He is, ultimately, brought low by young men – the next generation – he has trusted, taught and nurtured.'
The RSC production was directed by Gregory Doran and designed by Anthony Ward. It was performed by Nicholas Boulton, Guy Burgess, Daniel Burke, Jade Croot, Peter de Jersey, Joe Dixon, John Dougall, Michael Grady-Hall, Oliver Johnstone, Paul Kemp, Joseph Kloska (as Tiro), Patrick Knowles, Richard McCabe (as Cicero), Hywel Morgan, Lily Nichol, David Nicolle, Pierro Niel-Mee, Siobhan Redmond, Patrick Romer, Jay Saighal, Christopher Saul, Eloise Secker and Simon Thorp.