Director Charlotte Lennon describes the Caligula of Camus’ play as a “biographer’s dream.” Psychoanalysis, both past and present, has diagnosed the Roman despot variously with conditions ranging from schizophrenia to thyroid problems, to the extent that the man behind the fabled pathological cruelty has become almost a blank page, awaiting the scrawls (or scripts!) of those brave enough to graft an explanation to his actions. Camus’ Caligula is unique in that it ascribes him, not with a medical condition, but with a foolproofly self-destructive rationale.
Entering the stage for the first time, perpetually shivering and so agitated as to be incognisant of his own reflection, Caligula (Jack Powell) claims to be “not of this world.” And his pronouncement reflects something beyond Powell’s commitment to an unwavering display of the physical signs of madness. In a court of fluctuating loyalties, where the politicians circle each other, like vultures in 1930’s suits, openly discussing whether it is time to assassinate the previously “malleable” Caligula, his dogged commitment to philosophical principles and to the absolute mark him out as perversely honest, as well as honestly perverse.
The crisp, minimalist aesthetic, or the “nuanced facism” chic which Lennon’s production will bring to the Burton Taylor is excellently suited to the pragmatic, ideologically uncomfortable climate she creates. Everything feels studied; each actor successfully suggests the presence of inextinguishable anger, which is only occasionally allowed to flare up on a playing field where self-control and self-preservation work tensely in tandem. This sense of inner conviction battling outward appearances is most markedly demonstrated by the young poet with humane ideals, Scipio (Charlie Hooper), and by the ageing Octavius (Tim Gibson). Ignominiously dubbed “Pookie” by Caligula, Gibson’s Octavius tempers cartoonish winces with a polite re-setting of his jaw. Thrown to the ground and lying impressively arthritically as he quails from Caligula’s kicks as his warnings of the assassination are violently dismissed, the trapped Octavius exemplifies the quandary of feeling human emotions while operating in accord with the hard philosophy that Camus brings to the Roman Empire.
The play remains at all times a ball of tensions, with flashes of inappropriate touching and red nail polish from Powell that provide grotesque comedy rather than light relief. Caligula is a horrifying series of intellectual traps, which Lennon’s production renders newly disturbing. An encounter with Camus’ Caligula may not leave you wanting more, but it’ll certainly leave you speechless…