Big Finish is most famous for its science fiction audio plays. Cicero is not one of them. What it is though is an early contender for the best thing you’ll listen to this year. It’s a detective-story-cum-courtroom-drama starring one of history’s most legendary lawyers, Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Cicero’s is a name that lives in history. One of ancient Rome’s greatest thinkers, philosophers, lawyers and politicians, his name is as big and well-regarded in his many fields as any of the people whose lifetimes he shared, which considering he was alive in the time of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, is saying quite something.
But if you think for a second Big Finish’s new audio drama is going to be a dry listen to dull points of law and Roman history, you’re hugely mistaken. Writer David Llewelyn takes us into the life and character of a young Cicero, before he’s made the name for which history remembers him. And at this period of time, there’s a touch of Philip Marlowe’s Mickey Spillane about him; when a dame comes into his office and begs him to take her case, claiming he’s the last hope she has, it’s classic gumshoe stuff … in a toga.
Cicero and his younger, more adventurous brother Quintus Tullius take the case, which extends all the way from the sleazy Roman streets, up to the halls of Sulla the Dictator – a kind of pre-Julian Caesar in all but name. They uncover dodgy auctions, drunken lawyers, government creepazoids, low-life heavies, age-old family friends, and a mystery that gets more and more convoluted the more they find (but nothing that stretches credulity).
The story serves both the characters and the listener extremely well as an introduction; we learn the kind of man the young Cicero is – valorous but not stuffy, strong-willed, logical and studious compared to his brother, whose skills are more practical but nonetheless essential in their navigation through Roman life. There’s a glorious sequence that brings brother Quintus to the fore as Cicero prepares for his courtroom showdown, where he intends to reveal the true identity of the murderer in front of the assembled throng. Quintus drills Cicero on his pronunciation, his diction, his pauses, honing the oration as a listener and a sounding board for his brother.
There are elements of the story which you might guess at before they’re revealed, including whodunit and how – but nevertheless, Llewellyn’s writing and the direction by Scott Handcock build agreeably to a high-tension ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ courtroom scene that evolves the traditional ‘everybody gathered in a drawing room’ revelation and manages to deliver both thrilling drama and a highly relevant cris de coeur for our day and age. Using what might well have been a small, untouchable case and a day in court, Cicero, as a man of principle in a corrupted world, is able to sound a warning about the whole state of the nation – both his and increasingly our own – when he goes off-script and speaks from his most profound heart. It’s an air-punching oration that many will find both liberating and cathartic to hear spoken out loud.
Llewelyn, Handcock plus the small but effective cast have made a great, believable mystery that acts as a release valve for the frustrations of our own era. Here’s hoping there’s a Cicero series comes off the back of this adventure. If there is, you can bet we’ll be buying every last story in the casebook of Marcus Tullius Cicero – and if you know good listening when you hear it, so will you.