REVIEW: Pro Patria Mori
Interesting and insightful though only sporadically gripping, say Michael Tigchelaar and Elliott Wright
Pro Patria Mori is an intriguing new piece of theatre by classics student George Johnson, charting the demise of Cicero, famed Roman orator and politician of the late Republic, after the assassination of Julius Caesar and the subsequent proscriptions of Octavius, Antony and Lepidus, the three leading men of the era.
The play deals with dark themes such as what it means to walk on the edge of death, and whether it is right to sacrifice one’s life in the name of political morality, and indeed, for the good of their country. This new verse drama tackles such themes with a strong reverence to the historical context of the piece, though perhaps to the extent where this outweighs the entertainment value of the performance as a piece of theatre.
That said, the acting, despite a few unconvincing performances, was generally strong and enlivened the fascinating source material. Max Maher’s depiction of Cicero effectively captured the statesman’s external dignity in juxtaposition with his internal plight, as he struggled with his moral conscience in the anticipation of his impending death. Other standout performances include Seun Adekoya’s gripping and moving description of Cicero’s off stage death as a messenger and Robin McFarland’s powerful portrayal of a vengeful Mark Antony. The chorus provided a philosophical edge to the play, echoing the style of Greek Tragedy; they confidently framed the proceedings with their smooth and well-rehearsed physicality.
The play was interestingly produced; being done in the round made for a refreshing diversion from what is the norm of student theatre, and contributed to the play’s intimacy and voyeuristic atmosphere. The script was evidently well-researched, drawing on a wealth of source material about the times. Though the dialogue was written in blank verse, it remained concise and not overly verbose.
Despite these strengths, the intensity of the script only really became apparent in the second half; the first was comparatively lacklustre, focussing too much on dull arguments and exposition. As a pastiche of an ancient Greek tragedy it believable and highly commendable to the form, but adjustments are not made to bring it fully to modern tastes; to a contemporary audience it seems rather slow, and the efforts of the first half to build tension were largely unconvincing.The protagonist Cicero’s character, while performed well, was somewhat impenetrable and one-dimensional.
This elegantly written pastiche of ancient tragedy was held together by stand out moments (particularly the grisly ending) and performances by a very promising cast. However, these strengths could not overcome the script’s general lack of theatrical intensity.
As a work of historical fiction it ably condensed the history of the Roman Late Republic, though failed to fully realise the dramatic potential of those turbulent times.