As with the film of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another broad and epic story rendered down impressionistically for the viewing audience, I'm wondering what anyone would make of it if they haven't read the books beforehand. However, there is one aspect over which there isn't much doubt about how the audience takes things, because frequent outbreaks of laughter give it clean away. As with many (most?) writers, Harris of course very deliberately selects and treats his subject matter in order to comment, inter alia, on our own times; and it is striking how often the audience immediately sees present-day connections - in particular, with Brexit. In part, the stage production has annoyingly tweaked the original for this effect - a slightly modified phrase here, a wink at the audience there - but the assassination of Caesar is one example where no such deliberate pitching is required. As in the novel, Cicero berates the conspirators for having set out on a fateful course of action with no serious thought as to what happens next, and the audience recognises an allusion immediately. Given that the book easily predates the referendum, we may safely credit Harris with doing what he obviously intended: showing that the lessons of history are timeless.
(Another episode where the audience feel they recognise a deliberate allusion is when Pompey first struts bombastically onto the stage, complete with prominent Trumpian quiff and tan. But that is exactly how he is described in the book, and indeed as he was played by Kenneth Cranham in the BBC/HBO Rome back in 2005 - again, greatly predating the presidential rise of the Donald.)
If I have any other complaints against the production, the biggie is how the books' narrator Tiro, Cicero's brilliant amenuensis, is played for laughs - rather like the Common Man in A Man For All Seasons (stage version, not the film). That doesn't do him justice. And Harris does a lot better with the characters of Mark Anthony and his wife Fulvia than does the stage play.
But these gripes are to be set alongside the bravura spectacle and excellent set-pieces, particularly at the end. The seven hours went a lot quicker than some turgid offerings that are two-thirds shorter. I was left with one abiding impression, and it very much centres on the Rule of Law which Cicero pontificated upon so frequently.
Rule of law was clearly a major article of public faith in Cicero's time. It was in Tudor times too - another era of life-and-death personality politics** - even Henry VIII had to suffer abject humiliation in the courts when he wanted to divorce Anne of Cleves. We like to think we can rely upon it today. How - in the teeth of ferocious and unscrupulous politicians - is to be upheld? Is it proof against the excesses of a Trump in the USA, or a Selmayr in the EU? Will it be proof against Corbyn/McDonnell? We may be fascinated by watching the fall of the Roman Republic or the House of York: but we may not feel so comfortable living in such times ourselves.
Postscript: after the performance, who should hurl himself panting onto our No.38 bus from the theatre but the actor Richard McCabe - Cicero himself, featuring in almost every single scene across the two plays. (A tour de force - has anyone ever learned more lines?) I can report he is a most personable chap! Oh - and he could play Alex Salmond to complete and utter perfection (he's even a Scot): an idea for someone there ...
** Something else. When re-reading the Harris books, I was very struck by how similar is the tenor of the Wolf Hall would-be trilogy: a clever, diligent, ambitious lawyer of non-aristocratic origins, with a hand-picked, tight-knit and hardworking team around him, makes massive strides in public life during lethally tumultous times - and comes to a sticky end. And Wolf Hall has also been staged by the same playwright who brings us Imperium. Note: Harris got there first. Oh - and Harris actually completed that final volume ... get on with it, Hilary Mantel!