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Review: Caligula at Theatre Works

Review by Thomas Gregory

Way back in 1938, after reading Suetonius’ historical work, “Twelve Caesars”, Albert Camus set to work creating a piece of theatre that would take the story of a “mad king” as the frame to discuss his burgeoning theories about nihilism and existentialism. “Caligula” was described by Camus himself as “a tragedy of the intelligence” and “a superior suicide”.

Burning House Productions’ treatment of Camus’ masterpiece is an ambitious spectacle. Happy to shrug off the more subtle philosophical conversations to instead tell the story of a grieving king gone mad, director Robert Johnson treats the audience instead to a work filled with memorable images and less-memorable meanings.

When I say “memorable images”, I mean this in the most flattering of ways. From the giant reflective “moon” that takes up a large portion of the set, to the almost grotesque “introduction of a god”, this production is one made for photography. The audience is constantly titillated with physical comedy designed to shock.

Riley Tapp’s set design is incredible. A faux-marble stage and a “mirror moon” filled with details reflected from below. The stage is transformed from boardroom to throne room, with only minor changes, and the diamond stage is ringed by a series of busts that offer both visual and thematic connections to the production performed within.

While the costumes for “Caligula” may be far less consistent in design or tone, they are equally as successful at engaging the audience and reflecting the characters within. Caligula's suit stands out as a thing of beauty, and Druscilla’s ghostly dress is accentuated by Rachel Snape’s make-up choices.

While every actor in this production performs admirably and is committed to realising the unusual vision of the director, it is worth mentioning a few standout showings. Paul Armstrong’s Cherea is a balanced antagonist, and his chemistry with Liliana Dalton’s mad emperor when clashing heads makes for some incredible scenes throughout the play.

Karlis Zaid’s control of voice and body also makes for a charismatic and compelling performance. While he could quite easily steal the show, his humility and awareness allow him to shine a spotlight on the ensemble as a whole.

Liliana Dalton’s constantly chaotic Caligula may have been a strange directorial choice, but the star’s performance is far more nuanced than one might expect. Even when appearing most out of touch with reality, there are glimpses of “method in their madness”, and that underlying portrayal of grief is always simmering under the surface.

I hesitate for a moment to praise the modern translation of “Caligula” which is used for this production. The modernisation of terms and phrases certainly adds to the night, and I do believe that Camus would have approved of how it captured his original meaning. Some of Johnson’s other changes to the text, such as what happens to Mucius’ wife, are in line with his new hedonistic interpretation of Caesar, which is at least consistent.

My hesitation here has little to do with what it may do to Camus’ philosophical message. It instead is part of a wider discussion that needs to be had about attribution and rights in theatre.

I was hoping to confirm my suspicions with the company before writing this, but alas I have yet to have the chance. As such, I would rather accuse Johnson of the lesser crime of not attributing the modern translator for their work, while perhaps a more serious charge would be to translate without permission.

I would be the first to agree that seventy-five years from the death of an author is ridiculous when it comes to Arts rights laws. That this may be made worse by the corporatisation of copyright is a travesty. Honestly, it doesn’t bother me greatly if one refuses to pay the current owners of works made by people who died over half a century ago.

There is still something disrespectful, at least to me, in not acknowledging original ownership. Whether that be something as extreme as a mention on a poster, or something as minor as a one-line note in a program, that no indication of how a work has been changed, who changed it, or even that it has been changed with permission, seems necessary to respect the original text and its creator.

This is not something that has been neglected in other Burning House productions. Their reputation comes from the significant adaptations of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Gorky, and Ibsen. But were they continue to adapt Pinter, Churchill, or Kane without permission, might there be an ethical issue? And how much worse would it be if it were Stoppard? Would it be worse?

“Caligula” is a spectacle, for better or worse. Johnson’s production emphasises grief, hedonism, and suffering, with entertainment being the word of the day. Burning House has produced a play that will burn to the back of your eyeballs, even if it may not be anything like the play Camus originally intended. It is truly an ambitious and original adaptation.

Image Supplied


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