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West End Review: ‘Imperium’

“Imperium” builds Rome in a day. Robert Harris’ trilogy of novels charts the city’s slide from a great civilization to a grim imperial power, as democracy buckles and dictatorship digs in. Onstage, in “Wolf Hall” adaptor Mike Poulton’s adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, now newly arrived in London’s West End, it plays like a grand history cycle: the errors of one era give rise to those of the next. It might be set in antiquity, but contemporary resonance is close at hand.

Ostensibly a biography of Marcus Tulius Cicero — lawyer, orator and senator — as told by his slave-cum-secretary Tiro (Joseph Kloska), “Imperium” is most illuminating on the machinations of political power. While Richard McCabe’s calculating, quick-witted Cicero charms his way to a unanimous electoral victory as Rome’s new consul, a crowd of his rivals are on political maneuvers.

Poulton uses the language of the present to survey the past,

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