Caligula – Theatre Review

Caligula is a Shakespearean epic written by Albert Camus and Directed by Robert Johnson telling the story of Roman Emperor Caligula and the events that led him to his assassination by his senators and friends.

Now, for those of you, unlike myself, that weren’t an insufferable child telling everyone within earshot about all things to do with the Roman and Greek Empire and their individual mythologies, this might be the most enjoyable history lesson you’ll ever have. Don’t let that deter you though because Caligula is pretty damn historically accurate. But if that’s not your thing, there’s also a Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque dance number that’s filled with glitter and streamers.

Caligula is played to perfection by Liliana Dalton, taking on the ‘mad emperor’, making him almost sympathetic, never completely because he is murdering and starving his people, yet I didn’t hate him. Dalton walks that complicated line of showing Caligula’s madness that leads to cruelty but more so, the sadness and pain that has led him to commit these atrocities. The moon that Caligula wants to have in his possession, hangs over the stage part of the stunning stage design by Riley Tapp, where the only other set piece is a dark wooden table where the senators discuss their murder plot and political affairs for Rome. Looming over the stage, ominous and beautiful, Caligula’s longing for the moon is continuous, but it is always just out of his reach.

The opposition for Caligula is with his senators who have received similar cruel treatments as the citizens of Rome. Once thinking they could mould the emperor to their liking due to his age, the once exploitable leader begins to become more and more cruel, they decide that he can’t be saved. If Caligula does have an adversary, it is Cherea (Paul Armstrong). Playing alongside each other, Armstrong’s Cherea is solid and uncompromising in his belief that the young emperor is so far gone, needing to be stopped before more suffering is caused. Dalton is flamboyant and merciless playing Caligula, whereas Armstrong is stoic and retains his compassion despite what Caligula has done.

One of the few characters that never loses faith in Caligula is Scipio (Jake Matricardi), who is one of the characters that received one of Caligula’s cruellest treatments. His near constant hope that some goodness remains in Caligula is heartbreaking and Scipio remains sympathetic, even though he could appear foolish for holding onto hope for a man that appears to have lost all of their humanity.

All characters have an internal struggle from the play’s opening to its final moments, that questions on whether we need to become evil to expel evil. As Caligula pushes the limits of what his senators can allow, the intensity of the first act ramps up, completely pushing the audience past what other theatre acts would dare to. This level of intensity that the first act ends on, left me almost incapable of discussing with my companion on what we had just seen.

Caligula’s actions were almost like a teenager acting out, but to a level of tyranny much like Joffrey from Game of Thrones. As his cruelty around others grows, his sadness in moments of isolation show how much pain he really is in, how Dalton was able to balance these emotional juxtapositions, I’ve still been trying to comprehend ever since I left the theatre.

I did mention the play had moments like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this is with the second and final act. The stage being transformed into a sparkling and purple light feast for the eyes, with streamers hanging behind the moon and the table for the senators removed. Caligula is left with nothing but his one desire, the moon remains. The musical number is pure camp, showing the superb direction from Johnson, as the actors can so easily go from the seriousness of the first act to the campy wonder of the second. The second act has its wonderful opening sequence that then dives back into the cliff-hanger, the production had he on the edge of my seating and holding my breath as the play reached its end.

With the final moments of the performance, it was clear that Camus and Johnson had created something so unique and brave in both its storytelling and its execution, that whatever I was expecting to see, wasn’t what I saw. If anything, I could have never imagined the kind of magic that I witnessed. Every actor is stellar, and all have a wonderful flow and chemistry with each other, supporting one another to impressive execute the intensity of the play.

Caligula is something incredibility unique. While it is historically accurate, the story is of Albert Camus’ own making, never using clichés of historical dramas. Caligula’s scenes may go down as some of the saddest I’ve seen on stage, having a denouement that I wasn’t sure that could be achieved by how many story arcs had been created. I was just that blown away. 

Caligula is presented by Burning House and is now on at Theatre Works in Melbourne until the 23rd of July.
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Photography by Jack Dixon-Gunn.

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