How far can you take rationality and logic before it becomes indistinguishable with madness? Quite far indeed, if you look at the figure of Caligula. A Roman emperor for four murderous years, Caligula has gone down in the annals of history as a crazed, sadistic tyrant. Camus’ interpretation of him as a tortured existential figure in 1944 has now become a classic play in the absurdist tradition. Life is meaningless, choice is pointless and the world around us has no one at the rudder steering. Seen by many critics as a commentary on the dangers of totalitarianism, Caligula shows us a man guided by a warped sense of reason that allows him to commit any number of injustices because, as he constantly reminds us, none of it really matters in the end.
Directed by Mattia Mariotti the production captures the mixture of despair and glee that Caligula, played enthusiastically by Dominic Kimberlin, channels as he comes to terms with his sister’s death; terms which are at best bleak and at worse an excuse to shatter the veneer of Roman society and expose the hypocrisy beneath it. Shouting himself hoarse and throwing himself violently across the stage Kimberlin goes from reasoned debate to baying for blood at the blink of an eye. His performance holds nothing back and what it sometimes lacks in subtly it more than makes up for in intensity. Unfortunately the patricians that he whips into shape are a mixed bag. While a few expertly cowered and glared at Caligula’s antics in mute resignation, when they rose to speak something of the effect was lost and their words rang hollow more often than not. Chris Cannell (Helicon), aping certain mannerisms displayed in the recent production of 126.96.36.199, had a greater range of opportunities in Caligula to express them; opportunities he did not let slip by, thereby providing a humorous (and often disturbing) backdrop to the destruction being levelled around him.
Sound and lighting, two qualities that productions at the Barron often have difficulties with, were handled surprisingly well. The pre-recorded voices and the flashes of red light at the beginning of the production created an almost horrific sensation of impending evil, and it was disappointing that this competency was not capitalised upon throughout the play. The ending especially, with the voice echoing Caligula’s words, seemed almost a pastiche of the power realised at the start.
Regardless of these minor faults Caligula is well worth seeing and remains a fascinating introduction to existential philosophy.
Image credit – Mathilde Johnsen