by | Jul 18, 2022

By Nick Pilgrim

In over a decade reviewing live theatre, taking risks to make a name for your vision is a part of the game. Some of the standout examples from plays prepared to go that extra mile include:

  • Bad Jews (Alex Theatre);
  • Betrayal (Melbourne Theatre Company);
  • Dirt (Chapel off Chapel);
  • Quills (Mockingbird Theatre);
  • Salome (Malthouse Theatre);
  • Sex With Strangers (Q44 Theatre); and,
  • Trainspotting (45 Downstairs).

Whether they repurposed a known play or propelled the experience beyond acting, took both the performers and viewers into exciting and unknown territory. Always present and invested in the moment, nothing felt safe or scripted.  Shows became a shared organic relationship, with casts and creative teams feeding off each other.

Part of Theatre Works 2022 Season, Caligula is bold, ballsy, and off the charts. Using the lauded text by Albert Camus as its launching pad, in this instance the first rule of political gamesmanship proves that there are no rules. Presented by Burning House, this is a production jam-packed with daring choices.

In short, the story of Caligula begins with the main character in the throes of madness. Mourning the death of their sister (and secret lover), all reasoning goes out the window. This, Caligula does by testing both their team’s loyalty and the public at large. Ticking off the seven stages of grief, here is a tyrant determined to go down in history. Good or bad be damned.

With a running time of two hours (excluding a twenty-minute interval), there is a lot to unpack.

Immediately throwing us off the deep end, that the story starts in turmoil, took this reviewer several minutes to adjust to the chaos. Caligula is a demanding ride, requiring absolute commitment from both the performers and the audience. High stakes and high energy intermingle, creating an experience which rockets beyond the footlights.

Represented by Paul Armstrong (Cherea), Roderick Chappel (Octavius), Ioanna Gagani (Mucius), Marnie Gibson (Cassius), Cassandra Hart (Mereia / Poet 1), Donna Dimovski Kantarovski (Mucius’ Wife / Poet 2), Jake Matricardi (Scipio), Michelle Robertson (Cassiona), Paul Robertson (Metellus), Bridie Turner (Drusilla), and Karlis Zaid (Hellicon), the acting ensemble work as one.

Like the initial shows I listed at the top of this review, a great deal of trust is needed between the players to make the narrative flow. As life-sized chess pieces strategically positioned on an oversized board, the actors give Caligula almost choreographic importance.

As the titular character, Liliana Dalton is the volcanic epicentre of this journey. Never backing down from her stance, Dalton’s raw, physical performance, is always in your face at all.  At times I was reminded of a young Judy Davis or Pamela Rabe, such is her command of the space.

Anchoring the narrative, the choice of using an actress to portray this infamous leader is becoming quite a trend. (Think, Glenda Jackson in King Lear, or Eryn Jean Norvill from The Picture of Dorian Gray). The gender-bending shift adds a completely new level and point of view to the overall story. The (mis)management of absolute power can twist anyone, male or female, inside out. That Camus’ original play debuted during Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship is also food for thought.

Robert Johnson’s intelligent direction brings ebb and flow to the high drama and more quiet moments throughout. Characters are allowed to play off each other in such a way, making the overall journey exciting, dangerous, and unpredictable. (It should be noted that dramaturgy is by Lore Burns.)

Perhaps drawing on the likes of Derek Jarman, Sally Potter, Ken Russell, and our own Jane Campion or Baz Luhrmann as spirit guides, the creative team from Burning House Productions have fashioned a highly filmic experience.

A rich blend of modern boardroom power chic and Roman antiquity, set design by Riley Tapp (with assistance from Bridie Turner) is full of clever surprises. Without giving the visual reference completely away, Caligula is asked what they want most. Thanks to a brilliant illusion reflecting the marbled floor against overhanging ceiling, makes the moment a highlight.

Bathing scenes in neon blues or blood reds, lighting by Tim Bonser takes some of the bigger dramatic episodes to the next level. Combined with Claire Healey’s slick composition, makes for quite the audio-visual feast.

Between them, Tapp and Robert Johnson’s decision to dress the cast in modern clothing, adds to the wickedly corrupt air. Supported by Turner’s hair and make-up design, the art of the deal never looked so seductively corporate.

Stage management by Ishana Girsh and Acacia Nettleton, keep the show’s intricacies, and finer details on point at all times.

Burning House is building quite the reputation for recalibrating classic texts and making them their own.  I look forward to the company’s next venture with keen interest.

Caligula plays at Theatre Works until Saturday July 23.

Images:Jack Dixon-Gunn

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