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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Caligula
by Lizzie Loveridge

Existence as it is, is unbearable. I must have the moon or happiness or something.
-- Caligula
Albert Camus, the French existentialist wrote his political allegory, the play about the Roman emperor Caligula in 1944 after spending the war in France fighting with the French Resistance. Camus returned to the play and reworked it throughout his lifetime. Albert Camus was of Algerian origin and much of his political perspective would have been linked to the way Algeria was treated by the French. The Algerian crisis ended in 1963 three years after Camus' death in a car accident. Camus was one playwright in a movement of the 1950s and 1960s known as the Theatre of the Absurd. Absurdists included playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco; their dramatic writing reflects the incomprehensibility and futility of the human existence.

The play is ostensibly about a Roman emperor, Gauis "Caligula" Caesar (Emperor AD37 -41) but Camus uses the play to develop his philosophical ideas about the conflict between absolute power and individual freedom. Gauis was the youngest of nine children and the only boy to survive his grandfather, the emperor Tiberius. His father Germanicus, his mother Agrippina and all his brothers were either killed or starved to death by Tiberius and his lieutenant Sejanus. Gauis was given the nickname "Caligula" which means Little Boots by the soldiers because as a child he wore a child size version of army boots.

In a new and lucid translation from David Greig, Caligula (Michael Sheen) devastated by the death of his sister Drusilla with whom he probably had an incestuous relationship, deserts the Roman assembly for three days and three nights. On his return he is determined to understand the meaning of life. He is to push his power to the limits. His reign will become synonymous with terror, murder, torture, cruelty and sexual excess. "I've finally understood what absolute power is for. It gives the impossible a chance to exist. Freedom has no boundaries any more."

Michael Grandage's production rests on the brilliance of one character, the actor playing Caligula. Michael Sheen is both charismatic and indulged child. With his mop of curls (the real Caligula was prematurely bald) he carries out the most frightening of ordeals without ever losing his childlike appeal. Few find the courage or foolishness to oppose him. "Everything turns to ashes in front of fear". Here are dramatic stagings of Caligula dressing as Venus, in gold bikini with gold makeup, as gorgeous as any drag queen in Jerry Springer - the Opera and as Pan. However next to all these extremes is the lonely figure trying to come to terms with the many questions that trouble him about the purpose of human existence. Sheen gives his all in an energetic, multi-facetted and very physical performance. He never becomes stale. At 34, he is becoming a leading actor of his generation.

Raymond Coulthard as Cherea patiently bides his time, a cautiously, controlled performance of calm and sagacity, knowing that Caligula has to be assassinated. Diana Kent as Caesonia, Caligula's empress tries to understand him and manages to speak her mind but is eventually murdered. She has the gratitude of a wife older than her husband. Helicon (Jason Hughes) is a freed slave, Caligula's pet and hates the patricians. His vulgar, loutish behaviour amuses the emperor. Ben Turner as the sensitive poet Scipio recognises the loneliness of Caligula. Few can show honesty when their lives are threatened.

The Warehouse rear wall glistens and shines with lighting brightening Christopher Oram's gold, silver and copper paint effects. I liked the turquoise, verdigris lighting effect of the final stabbing. The costume designer has captured Caligula's sartorial excesses well, often contrasting these costumes with the simple crumpled linen of the misunderstood boy. Caligula looks in the pond onstage as if the reflection will give him the answer.

There are moments of comedy as well as those which horrify. I think the philosophical basis for the play feels dated rather than exciting and fresh. However, rulers with absolute power who abuse it are very much in the news.
Caligula
Written by Albert Camus
Translated by David Greig
Directed by Michael Grandage

Starring: Michael Sheen, Raymond Coulthard
With: Geff Francis, Jerome Willis, Bernard Gallagher, Peter Gale, Ralph Bolland, Jeff Diamond, Jason Hughes, Ben Turner, Diana Kent, Olivia MacDonald
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Music: Adam Cork
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7369 1732
Booking to 14th June 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 2nd May 2003 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (Tube Station: Covent Garden)

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