❉ It’s toga time as Bryn Mitchell returns to Rome with Samuel Barnett’s Cicero…
The long-awaited follow-up to Big Finish’s Cicero series is finally here, and it’s an epic two-hour historical drama with an impressively large cast. From the promotional material and interviews around this release, the buzzword seems to be “movie” and this feature length story — structured very differently to the first series — delivers on that promise. It’s a tale of political intrigue and class tensions taking place in the fifth decade of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s life and set against the rise to power of one Gaius Julius Caesar. As with the first series (and other Big Finish Originals), this is a download only release, and one that comes with a very reasonable price (only £9.99) when compared with other Big Finish dramas of a similar length.
The epistolary framing device familiar to any listeners of the first boxset continues here with letters between Cicero and Atticus in Greece. A more cynical reviewer could dismiss this as a cheap route to exposition, but it’s a part of the identity of the range now, and with so much having changed in Cicero’s life between this and the previous release it’s one element that helps to create a sense of consistency and familiarity. More than that, it’s appropriate to the genre of historical drama, and particularly relevant to depicting the life of Cicero, a figure whom we know so much about in part because of his letters: from which some lines are even incorporated verbatim by writer David Llewellyn, according to Vortex magazine.
We open on an older, more settled Cicero. Cicero and Terentia seem comfortable (although there is still a resentment for past actions) and they have had two children who are now young adults themselves. Marcus Jr. is absent from the story, but daughter Tullia features. It’s not a huge part, but her relationship with her father is fascinating, she’s not afraid to talk to him and interrupt his sulk even when his wife and friends are. There’s a closeness there and she seems willing to be frank with him even when others aren’t. It’s these moments of family drama that really work and emphasise the passage of time between series. There’s a sense of fatigue to Cicero, a philosophical tiredness, he’s an older man in body and in spirit. Samuel Barnett plays this incarnation of the character well, distinguishing him from the younger Cicero. It’s interesting to note that, despite his youthful voice, Barnett is in fact playing much closer to his actual age in this release.
Samuel Barnett points out himself in the behind-the-scenes interviews that this older Cicero is now less active and more reactive, and while effective characterisation, this does make for a slower moving story compared to the pacyness of the previous six episodes. The opening act suffers from this particularly. Without the impetus of Cicero’s work as a lawyer and the investigations that go alongside that, the story finds itself drifting through political developments and Roman history without much sense of urgency or indeed connection. It’s good, quality drama, performed by a great cast, but there isn’t the same forward momentum. Another factor that may impact on the opening section feeling less engaging is the absence of Cicero the younger, Marcus’ brother Quintus, given how much of the first series was built around their relationship and the shining chemistry between actors Samuel Barnett and George Naylor.
However, there are still some great scenes in this early part, in particular once Atticus (Rupert Young reprising his role) has come to Rome and joined the narrative outside of the letter exchange. Most notable is Atticus’ attendance at an awkward family dinner between Claudius, his sister Claudia and her husband Metellus. This is an elegantly written dinner table scene expertly portraying the tensions between the characters, as an embarrassing childhood story leads to Claudius retaliating with an altogether more vicious reminiscence about his sister.
Claudius, who later changes his name to Clodius, is a key antagonistic force in the story, separate to Caesar and his allies but equally opposed to Cicero. There’s a fascinating bit of social commentary in how Clodius, as part of his political rise to power, seeks to be adopted by a plebeian family, in order to become plebeian rather than a patrician. He manipulates the masses by assimilating with the lower classes and attempting to rewrite his own family history, even going so far as to change his own name. We’re first introduced to the character as he’s giving a rally at the Crossroads: Something which frames him as an impressive orator, making him an effective antagonist and opposite force to Cicero, who is known as perhaps the greatest orator of all time. Oh, and yes, the drama does get some mileage out of the double meaning of its title ‘The Crossroads’.
Separate from the Clodius thread of the plotline, Cicero’s refusal to ally himself with Caesar and his triumvirate (consisting of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus) puts a target on his back. And so, when his former co-consul Hybrida is charged with larceny, Cicero is implicated, and takes it upon himself to defend Hybrida in court. It’s the closest this story gets to recalling the format of the original episodic range, as we get to hear Cicero in court. There’s far more to this case and Cicero’s defense of it than just the crime itself, but it gives Samuel Barnett the opportunity to deliver a fantastic monologue, which he does masterfully.
There’s another moment much later, following the return of Quintus to Rome, that recalls the first series in a similar way, as Quintus has to investigate and ask people questions in order to uncover the circumstances around a riot. Here Quintus himself notes how similar this is to the old days, when they worked in their youth. It’s a nice moment and, along with scattered references to Sulla and the five returning cast members, it creates an effective sense of continuity between this release and the last, in spite of the time gap.
It’s true that there’s a lot of new characters here, and that their political machinations are often the focus of the story, but the relationships and family situations explored in this release continue on naturally from the last one. Cicero and Terentia’s relationship is stretched to its limits by events, meanwhile Quintus and Pomponia’s fraught relationship might just get a chance to heal.
The final act is a frequently tense affair, and the script does a good job at creating a genuine sense of jeopardy, regardless of the fact that probably about ninety percent of the audience knows Cicero’s eventual fate. And the drama plays on this as well, with a great deal of foreshadowing of what’s to come in Cicero’s life. Whether this will end up as setup for an actual future release depicting these events or not, it’s very effective in the context of the story, further cementing the themes of Cicero’s fatigue and the continued danger of his life. At one point Cicero says, “Men like me can never retire”, and well perhaps a little cliched, it appears to be true and gels well with the story’s message.
While I would have loved to have had another series of the brothers Marcus and Quintus investigating, it’s good for the range to change and evolve. Although it’s a shame this doesn’t feel like it leaves much room for a return to that format (with Cicero’s status having changed so much), you never know with Big Finish, and I hope they wouldn’t rule out further stories set between the original series and this follow-up. Equally, stories going further into Cicero’s life, in a similar format to this one, would be well received by me. Either way I am hopeful this isn’t the last we hear of this excellent cast, who clearly get on so well, and indeed the excellent team of director Scott Handcock and writer David Llewellyn. The original Cicero boxset is one of my favourite Big Finish releases ever, and this follow up may not be quite the same series, but it’s still an excellent slice of historical drama, and a cut above much of Big Finish’s output.
❉ ‘Cicero – The Crossroads’ is now available as a digital download only at £9.99, exclusively from https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/cicero-the-crossroads-2442. Big Finish listeners can save money by ordering Cicero – The Crossroads alongside Cicero – Series 1 together in a bundle for just £30 on download.