Caligula

Albert Camus, translated by David Greig
Donmar Warehouse
(2003)

The Donmar's new artistic director, Michael Grandage, has really hit top gear with this sparkling production. It is amazing that more people have not written about the Emperor Caligula. He is such a ripe character, barking mad but so colourful, the kind of man that novelists, TV producers and playwrights dream about.

There is a suspicion that Albert Camus' nihilistic Caligula, a star-vehicle that does not seem to have been performed on a professional stage in London for 40 or 50 years, may not be that great a play.

The production team of translator/adaptor, David Greig, director Grandage and star in the eponymous role, Michael Sheen, work so well together that this is a marvellous evening's entertainment. It also has great contemporary meaning, the concept of the all-powerful dictator seems very appropriate at the start of the 21st Century.

The play starts with the whispering patricians searching for the Emperor that they believe they control. He has gone AWOL following the death of his beloved sister Drusilla with whom he had an incestuous relationship.

On his return, it is clear that his mental faculties are badly impaired as he is suffering from a deep depression. He now fails to see anything positive in the absurdity of a life that he characterises in the phrase "we die and we are unhappy". It is sad to observe that this is almost certainly a reflection of the mental state of the playwright who was still in his early to mid-twenties at the time that he wrote Caligula.

Sheen is wonderful as a man who knows that he can make his subjects do whatever he wishes but strives for more: he has a "violent need for impossible things". Caligula proclaims random death and execution as normal practices, using the rationale that this is the way that an egalitarian Emperor should act since it means that the rich and the poor are treated equally (cruelly). He is a real contradiction, an almost-Communist thinker before his time, who uses often-perfect logic to justify amazing depravity and cruelty.

He immediately polarises his patrician advisers. The majority are weak and pander to his whims unhappily. Caesonia, played by Diana Kent, who really loves him and Jason Hughes' Hellicon ride gloriously around on the back of their leader's increasingly demanding edicts.

The most interesting character other than Caligula himself is the poet Scipio, a very nice performance from Ben Turner. He is torn between love and hatred for the man that has killed his father but who could easily be seen as his own alter ego. The two men recognise themselves in the other and Scipio is really the only person who can get through Caligula's surface bravado to the man underneath.

The remaining characters are not well developed although all weakly oppose their Emperor. The pick of the performances come from Raymond Coulthard as Cherea, the most rational of the plotters, and Jerome Willis as the aged Octavius who cannot bring himself to formally oppose a divinely appointed leader until the final scene. That scene is very special as it makes the difference between the treatment of this play as a classical tragedy and the far more interesting tragi-comedy that it really is.

Grandage's production qualities are extremely high. The design by Christopher Oram is very simple and with sympathetic lighting from Neil Austin achieves levels of great beauty. This peaks as the narcissistic hero lifts a full-length mirror from a pool of water and revolves around the stage looking at himself like a lover. In addition, the silences in this production speak eloquently and sometimes roar.

Pride of place though must go to a really feisty modern translation from the prolific young Scottish playwright, David Greig, one of our best theatrical wordsmiths at the moment, always incredibly quotable; and to a superlative performance from Michael Sheen.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher