This production sets Camus’ play around the time of its writings, in Mussolini’s Italy. Although I am always dubious about de-Romanising plays set in Rome, in this case it really worked. Partly it worked because the play itself is such that its themes and messages are universal. But more than this, transposing Caligula in time, this production reflects on the writer himself, and the political turmoil from which his play possibly sprang. We see a world of lavish dressing, old money, and hanging at the side, the hint of the threat of the nouvea riche, and of course, that of madness.
The play opens with the patricians all coming on stage and the direction strikes the delicate balance between presenting them as a kind of classical chorus and as individual characters. When they speak together, they run on one another’s lines, seeming to form a homogenous group, but as the dialogue progresses these witty little individuals who are both distinct from one another, but also linked to each another emerge. There is a real lightness of touch that makes this group of characters both amusing and human. We can laugh at them collectively as a group of pontificating old men, but we can also feel their fear, their desperation at being at the mercy of an out-of-control ruler, and their need to save their own skins.
For me, Caligula will always be John Hurt in I Claudius, so however good this Caligula was, I expected to be a little disappointed. I was not. Jack Powell captures that same mixture of vulnerability and seething threat that Hurt’s performance shows.
First, we see a man shaking, hurting, talking nonsense about wanting the moon, we wonder what these old men are afraid of. When we see him later, he is disconcertingly calm, showing Octavian, one of the patricians, his newly painted nails. It all seems rather sweet and harmless, but moments later we see that this is the facade of controlled mania as Caligula flashes from docile to violent. Caligula is at once the most mad possible, and as Heilcon his freedman calls him, “not mad enough”. This play shows a different side of the famously barmy emperor, as one who is trying to come to terms not with his own madness, but the madness of existence, and of human experience. A play like this depends so heavily on the ability of the lead actor to embody all of these contradictions without appearing ridiculous, and Powell manages it admirably.
Not all of the performances are as strong as they could be, and granted I saw the teasiest of teasers, far from the whole production, but what I saw was a sensitive and intelligent production of a great play – it is both funny and moving, it is lively and engaging, it is nuanced and subtle. What I saw was as yet a little unpolished, but it held the promise of something really and deeply human, a drama that is touching as well as entertaining.