Domitius – An Original Musical

Book by Henry Gu Cao and Lux Knightley, music and lyrics by Luke McCormick and Lux Knightley
Domitius Production Collective LLP
Fringe Online

Domitius
Domitius

Although part of the online Fringe programme, Domitius Production Collective LLP’s new show is a stage version filmed last year at Conway Hall in London. However, the sheer ambition and scale of Domitius, a full-cast, full-on rock musical, is such it is hard to see how else the show could be staged.

Nero, also known as Domitius (Max Himmelreich), is the preferred successor to an ailing Roman Emperor. This is not, however, something Nero desires; he just wants to, well, sing. The self-absorbed Nero realises, however, as a ruler he can demand critical acclaim from his subjects and, once enthroned, is willing to murder his mother, half-brother, wives, best friend and teacher to retain power.

The script by Henry Gu Cao and Lux Knightley favours accuracy and detail—instead of fiddling while Rome burns, Nero allows the conflagration to clear buildings for urban renewal and also to provide space for his golden palace. The style is that of an historical / political thriller but the drawback with such an approach is that it requires a large number of characters to be squeezed into the first half which hinders plot development. The online version of the musical has subtitles for the lyrics which are a godsend in helping work out who is who. One wonders how the live audience managed without this assistance.

The large range of characters hinders emotional impact. The closest Nero has to a father figure / conscience is his teacher Seneca (Stewart Briggs) who serves as a moral guide but who also vanishes early in act one and does not reappear until well into act two when his purpose becomes to express regret for not being a better influence and to die nobly.

Ambition is apparent also in the rock / glam rock score by Luke McCormick and Lux Knightley. This is the only musical one can recall which has not only lyrics but an entire chorus in Latin. At one point, the authors mock their own pretentions with Nero counting his exercise repetitions in Latin.

There is a strong sense that all involved would like to play the show straight as a tragedy but are aware the audience might want a few laughs. However, rather than, say, add a comic clown figure, they introduce some pop culture / topical gags which stick out like a sore thumb. References are made to other musicals (Rome, we are told, is holding out for a Nero) but the dig at Wicked takes ages to set up and isn’t that funny. Although Nero professes to have no desire to enter politics, he suddenly adopts the mannerisms of Donald Trump.

Co-directors Bethan Carys, Luke McCormick and Lux Knightley set a dark, oppressive atmosphere. Rome is portrayed as a decadent place where severed heads in bloody sacks are handed around and sinister masked murderers surround their victims.

The cast is excellent, in particular Max Himmelreich, although the dense script places limitations on what he can achieve. Nero has a degree of innocence upon his first appearance, and his rapid corruption is without clear explanation—suddenly, he just accepts his destiny. Nero is presented as someone with more ego than ability but there is not enough time for the audience to make a judgement. There is only a quick satirical poem and a poetry slam confrontation with his best friend to give an idea of his talents. As a result, Nero is seen as self-delusional and corrupt rather than a more tragic figure whose ambition exceeded his talents.

Domitius is a tremendous achievement, a fully realised rock musical that remains true to the historical storyline. The sheer scale of the show and the amount of detail is, however, a bit overwhelming.

Reviewer: David Cunningham