Albert Camus lived during the terrible scenes of death and destruction that was Europe in the early decades of the 20th century, he joined revolutionary movements in his country of birth Algeria, and when he went to nazi occupied France in 1938 he played an active part in the resistance movement. These grim events left their mark upon his intellect that comes across in his nihilistic and existential writings.
The play opens with Rome’s leading senators enquiring about the grief-stricken Caligula’s whereabouts since he has mysteriously disappeared after the death of his sister Drusilla with whom he had an incestuous relationship. Caligula, until now has been a pliable emperor and the senators hope that he will remain so.
On his return however Caligula has awakened to a new reality, the utter meaningless of life. He reasons that in a world in which we all die, what has meaning? Since life is meaningless then it is mere slavishness to be bond by conventional rules of morality therefore the free man will be completely amoral. It is a delusion that causes nothing but pain to believe that life has any purpose. Humanity needs to learn that “we die and are unhappy”.
Who better to teach his people this creed of despair then he himself, a man of absolute power, and so begins his mad quest to bequeath the world “the gift of meaninglessness” In this new world of meaninglessness, nothing has any value or purpose. No action, no matter how depraved, can be judged to be better or worse than any other. Death takes us all, in an apparently random manner, so why not awake people to this cruel fact by providing death a helping hand and executing people randomly. Since we all lie in the lap of cruel fate, why not give fate assistance by raping, murdering and stealing at will?
So begins Caligula’s reign of terror. He murders senator’s sons, whores their wives, and forces poison down their throats. He despises his subject’s weakness that causes them to quiver in fear before him and laugh at his ridiculous jokes even whilst he is busy tyrannising them.
Michael Sheen gives a powerful performance as Caligula, his mesmerising eyes have a look of unhinged sanity, he overflows with agitated energy, which means even when he is sitting still one knows the volcano will soon erupt in yet another explosion of pointless violence. He sends people to their death with a camp flick of the wrists and cries of “Run along, be a good boy”. However, he fails to make the most of Caligula’s moments of self-doubt and of the nihilistic urge that means he welcomes his own destruction as much as he welcomes the destruction of others. The few moments of self-doubt are dealt like casual acquaintances that are easily dismissed, rather than fearful demons that one struggles to ignore because they refuse to be silenced.
Caligula’s two companions, Helicon, a slave he took into the palace and has now become Caligula’s personal friend/servant, and Caesonia his mistress are excellently played by Jason Hughes and Diana Kent respectively. They both add to Caligula’s menacing presence by their apparently gleeful willingness to assist in his evil entertainments and their shared contempt for the senators.
Ben Turner as Scipio, and Raymond Coulthard as Cherea both sizzle with passion as they stand their ground and oppose Sheen’s Caligula by refusing to cower in fear before him, but when they communicate amongst themselves or the other characters they lack the same passion - I found it hard to imagine Cherea rallying the rebellious senators into murderous sedition!
Christopher Oram’s simple set design of a bare stage backed by a brick wall flooded with golden light allows the plays’ fall into madness to continue at a dizzying momentum. David Greig’s translation is graceful, though I disagree with his comments in the programme notes that the play is about finding meaning ‘despite’our knowledge of death and unhappiness.
Michael Grandage’s direction never becomes bogged down in the nihilistic angst of Camus’ work but keeps us focused on the depraved wretchedness of Caligula’s insane mind.
(Production photos by Ivan Kyncl).
What other critics had to say.....
CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Sheen is in tremendous form throughout, sexy, cruel, funny and unhinged." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Savagely funny and superbly judged production." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Finely staged." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, " Michael Sheen is highly impressive." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Beautiful production."
External links to full reviews from popular press