Caligula

Tue 22nd – Sat 26th November 2011

reviews

Nick Davies

at 04:13 on 23rd Nov 2011

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“I want the moon,” Camus’ antihero Caligula reminds us incessantly. Well, emperors will be emperors, but your typical man on the street, upon unearthing such a desire from the depths of his own soul, might conclude that the goal is impractical and move on to something else. Unfortunately, no similar act of self-censorship stayed the Oxford University Classical Drama Society from attempting to compress a two-plus-hour, 24-character spectacle into a one-hour, 8-character chamber piece. This was a laudable experiment, but despite a few moments showcasing inspired direction and competent acting, the breakneck pace resulting is an insuperable flaw.

The real tragedy is that little can be done; student productions at the Burton-Taylor Studio have a strictly limited running time of one hour. To accommodate this constraint, vast swaths of the source material have been slashed, and what’s left is rushed through. Given some space, this capable cast could present something exceptional, but as it stands, they have neither the material nor the breathing room to fully engage with this play.

It’s a shame, because Jordan Waller’s translation from the French is excellent, shadowing the alternatively casual and didactic voices of the original to good effect. Commendably, although he remains true to Camus’ spirit, he is not afraid to inject his own stylistics, such as a play on the phrase “practical joke” where no equivalent exists in the original. A few quirks, like the sporadic dropping of some jarring F-bombs, do not substantially mar the whole.

Some flashes of brilliance are worth mentioning. A thrillingly tense moment occurs when Caligula (Jack Powell) surprises his would-be assassins with a wordless inspection, and a scene featuring the poet Scipio (Charles Hooper), in which his complex relationship with his father’s murderer develops, is daring and unexpected. Unfortunately, there is insufficient time to explore the ties between the emperor and his council, and some of Caligula’s most interesting crimes are omitted. As a result, rather than the mounting depravity of a bloodthirsty villain laying the foundation of his own undoing, we bear witness to something more closely resembling a sullen teenager’s arbitrary tantrums and a dithering cabal of timorous advisers whose three-year inaction is basically inexplicable.

Further losses resulted from the reduction of the setting and cast. Minimal staging was used effectively, but failed to convey a sense of place. The number of characters called for easily sustained cuts, and this was mostly done well, but the combination of the poet Scipio and the rebel leader Chaerea into a single character in this production was puzzling, especially given the sparing of the relatively bare roles of Cassius and Lepidus.

Kenneth Tynan famously described “Caligula” as a “bad great play.” As with most of Camus’ fiction, this play mixes the realist and the didactic with absolutely no regard for subtlety. The experience is not unlike sitting down for coffee with a charming professor who occasionally punches you in the face. It is the kind of reading that sounds slightly better in your head than it does out loud, especially if your inner voice speaks in a French accent, pauses frequently to raise an eyebrow and puff a cigarette, and lives on a beach in Algiers. Nonetheless, the cast and crew of “Caligula” are obviously proficient. There is much to like here, but because of the requirement to cram it all into sixty minutes, there is not as much to like as there could have been.

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Alex Woolley

at 09:59 on 23rd Nov 2011

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I had high hopes for this production – a play with a maniac lead set in the claustrophobic gloom of the Burton Taylor Studio. And, I am pleased to say, my hopes were more than justified.

Jack Powell plays Caligula with a nervous, jittering energy, which was unsettling but not alienating. Merely from an anatomical point of view, his shaking convulsions were impressive. His sexuality was loose: he fondles Caesonia his mistress as well as Scipio, and Cassius whom he just condemned to death. I suppose this adds further to the enigma of the character, and was a nice touch from the directorial team. The extreme clarity of his enunciation throughout was both practical, and was a subtle indication of Caligula’s insanity. The dance was hilarious, and the audience could not but laugh despite the circumstances. His final line, delivered under the glare of red lights, was chilling.

The chorus of patricians (well, really they are all separate, named characters: Matellus, played by James Skinner, Cassius, played by Daniel Draper, Octavius, played by Tim Gibson, and Lepidus, played by Guy Bartlett) injected both humour and a sense of panic into the production. Gibson’s pose and attitude were particularly comic. Skinner played his part very competently, and was at times in danger of stealing the show from the more principal roles.

Scipio is no easy part: he needs to seem sane and yet display empathy with Caligula, the archetypal madman who has murdered his father. I feel Charles Hooper, though often compelling, did not manage fully to bring out the complexity of Scipio’s character and thoughts.

Helicon, played by Alex Sheppard, too, could at times be underwhelming. He seemed to hover between evil and more human uncertainty – both interpretations would have been engaging – but never quite grasped either properly. Caesonia, played by Flora Ropek-Zackon, was strong, and confident in her gait; a certain serenity (in contrast with the panic of the chorus, for example) could be discerned. Her costume was alluring, and the disconcerting semi-black lipstick gave an air of the tart she might be (if unfortunately reminiscent of Lady GaGa). Overall she put in an admirable performance.

It’s worth now complimenting the production team on their choice of the Burton Taylor, the use of the mirror (which allowed Caligula to address the audience with his back to us), and their emphasis on humour. Four stars may be too generous, but I decided to round up from three and a half rather than down.

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