Discontented voters, an out-of-touch elite, rabble-rousing populists: the RSC's 'Imperium' draws out the similarities between ancient Rome and our own political landscape. What does the author of the 'Cicero' novels make of the stage adaptation?
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed and edited by Richard Topping. Still pictures by Manuel Harlan, courtesy of the RSC.
I've once, was a pretty good journalist for many years, and I've always wanted to write a political novel, and been put off by trying to invent politicians, you know, a fictional president, prime minister, when the actual ones we've got are so weird and peculiar, more like fiction than fact. It seems very hard to make them up.
And I thought, why don't I try and write a political novel bringing the Roman political system to life? I mean, not the generals and the rest of it, but actually have a political state functioned. And once I had had that sort of basic idea, Cicero became the obvious character to hone in on.
He was self-made, he rose through power of his own voice and writing. There's no doubt that Cicero could change minds. I mean, if he was arguing in a law courtl, he could get someone off. He could change the political direction of the country by the force of oratory.
My starting point as a novelist, a writer, is that people don't change. I mean, maybe 30,000 years ago human beings were different, but 2,000 years is a blink of an eye. And I don't think that people in ancient Rome were very different to us. So the basic humanity is the same. And the basic rules of politics are the same of how power is sought, and the sort of people who try to get it. The dangers of holding power, the corrupting nature of it. The way that most political careers end in failure. All that is the same.
I see power as something like radioactive material. It has immense destructive and beneficial forces. And it has to be carefully handled and has to be shared and if you try to hold on for too long, it will end up destroying you. And in ancient Rome, many of the things that went wrong with the Roman Republic, one can feel now.
I mean, we have similar problems. Elite versus masses. The sense of the senators and the intellectuals being divorced from the people. And the rabble rousing that's done often by the equivalent of billionaires in Roman times. And most of all, by Caesar. Using popular discontent to bring down the liberal elite.
It's a standing warning to us, the Roman Republic. It had lasted for centuries, and yet it was gone in 25 years. And the question is, why did this form of democracy that had been so successful for centuries, why did it vanish from the earth for more than 1,000 years? It does make one feel that maybe democracy is not the natural state of mankind. And that actually, it may be seen as something that comes and goes.
And certainly one feels that a bit at the moment. That simply the pressures that tore the Roman Republic about, you can feel them being replicated now with the rise of populism. And just a sense of the whole world order changing. That makes Rome endlessly fascinating I think.
I've had lots of things turned into films and into television. And there's a certain deadness to it when you arrive on set. Everything's locked down. In the theatre, it's much more organic. Everyone meets, they become friends, they spend all their time together. They contribute during rehearsals, they make suggestions. And the play is a live thing, and the play is alive when it's performed to the audience.
And that relationship between the person sitting in the theatre and the actor seems to me very close to that between a novelist and the reader. That is, it's a collaborative process, not something that's cold, finished, framed and projected onto the screen for you to look at.