Alexandra Boulton as PomponiaGeorge Thompson

To die for one’s country – the title of the play is a dramatic one, and befitting for the story of Cicero’s last days, but it is not a sentiment entirely fulfilled by the Pembroke Players. Telling the riveting account of the death of Rome’s great rhetorician, Cicero, who falls victim to his political enemies’ proscription lists, this should be a piece of high-tension drama with impressive dialogue as well as a strong cast. While the production aims for these heights, the end result is merely mediocre.

The writing and design is extremely clever, with George Johnson taking inspiration from the classical world to stylise it as a Greek tragedy in blank verse. This is reflected in the set-up of the staging and seating as a structure akin to an amphitheatre, or perhaps even the Senate. The result is a deeply domesticated feel, as the audience is invited into Cicero’s refuge outside of Rome and observes his discussions with close friends and family about what he should do. These intimate scenes are the best as the actors use one other’s emotion to push themselves harder. The Chorus are also present throughout most of the show, keeping true to the form, but on the whole are too monotone. Representing the voice of the people, they occasionally failed to rouse the audience’s interest in being invested in the life of their ‘nation’s father’. However, Seun Adekoya is impressive in his messenger speech as he recounts the murder of Cicero to the audience, speaking eloquently and confidently.

Yet the same cannot be said for the play’s main role. Max Maher’s take on Cicero renders the ex-consul, who gained his seat through sheer popularity, pathetic. This may be a fault in the writing, but either way, Cicero is reduced to a coward – who sometimes needs a prompt for his lines, (although first night nerves must be taken into consideration) – when his ultimate act of sacrifice for the country’s greater good is anything but. Any pathos that should be invoked for Cicero’s death is made void by the arrival of a bloody plastic severed head, and a pair of hands to match, that perhaps could have been a lot more moving if subtler. Nevertheless, a powerful and persuasive performance is put on by Alexandra Boulton, as the bereaved sister-in-law, whose vengeful plans are much more emotionally involved and authentic.

Ultimately, the play suffers from its straining to live up to something great, the epitome of this being in the costume which is neither traditional nor different enough to need comment. Lines are over-emphasised, gestures are too staged, and in a Roman world where rhetoric was such a spontaneously powerful tool, this didn’t quite work. There is potential in this production, but one leaves feeling that a few vital aspects of Roman life are missing.

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