Review by Taylor Kendal
I need a Nero! I’m holding out for a Nero til the end of the night!
Alas, that is not this reviewer trying to be funny, but an actual quote from a show that caught my interest the minute I read the synopsis. Promising love, song, dance and murder, Domitius follows first century Rome and Emperor Nero during his ascension to power, and his vain pursuit of acclaim as a musician and performer, with an original soundtrack pulled straight out of the 70s and 80s. Now, admittedly, these two separate entities don’t seem to go hand in hand, and yet with a libretto by Henry Gu Cao & Lux Knightley, and original music and lyrics by Lux Knightley & Luke McCormick, Domitius manages to make it work, and brilliantly at that.
Beginning with his wedding to Octavia, the audience is introduced to a young Nero; lamenting the situation he has been thrust into, becoming the future Emperor of Rome, and his unquenchable desire to be a musician and performer, wanting to win the hearts and favour of his people with his talents. It seems like a strange concept, and yet it is known that Nero sang and played the cithara, which were disciplines at a standard in Elite Roman education, though his devotion exceeded what was considered to be socially acceptable to someone of his class.
Right from the beginning, we are introduced to an incredibly talented cast, full of incredible singers and performers who are completely devoted to their characters and bringing them to life while staying true to the source material in the history books. Leading the cast is Max Himmelreich as Nero, with a charm and charisma that lures you in to wanting to like Nero, until he does something that reminds you just how awful he was. Matched with an incredible vocal range and a quick wit, he transforms the tyrant into someone more humanised and perhaps, in a way, relatable – you definitely know someone who is a little like this in some ways, just…less murder. I hope. While every member of the cast plays their part perfectly, and I wish I had time to talk about them all individually, a huge shout out has to be made for the women in the cast; incredible talents portraying characters in a time where women were considered lesser beings, yet still pulled some of the strings to hold onto what little power they could.
The script makes it clear that the writers are very well researched in their history of the roman empire, and very cleverly interwoven some incredible pop culture references for the audience, from a scarily accurate impression of a former disgraced president, a Wicked reference, and my personal favourite, Nero being assured ‘This is not Grease!’. The dialogue is witty, though there are moments where some lyrics can seem a little out of sync and not flowing as well as they should, though in my mind that is down to the language, rather than the writing itself. The script also does a great job of bringing in some humour without taking away from the tragedy of it all. This in particular goes for the character of Nero himself. In no way does the show attempt to downplay or write off Nero’s danger or madness; it doesn’t shy away from the deaths on his hands or his carelessness in his position of power. It does, however, show a touch of his human side, allowing him to be portrayed as a severely flawed character rather than outright villain. There are some moments, however that may seem a little messy for some. If you are not overly familiar with the backstory, the progression of time within the show can seem a little confusing; jumps in years without much indication other than a seemingly throwaway line. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between.
Domitius is a creation that is rewarded for its ambition; creating an amalgamation of contrasting media forms and source material, creating a wonderful piece of art that entertains, and horrifies in all the right ways. For this history buff theatre nerd, it is a wonderful example of how any story can be told in a variety of ways with the right vision at the helm.