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Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

Caligula at the Union Theatre

Tunisian/French playwright Albert Camus' Caligula written in 1938 could, at the time of its first performance in 1945 have been seen to parallel the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

Caligula at the Union Theatre
Photo: Stagephoto

For contemporary audiences however, this metaphoric play could possibly, be seen to reflect the dualistic nature of any dictatorship anywhere around the world. For Camus' play depicts the infamous Emperor Caligula as a young man with a deceptively gentle exterior which, in reality, houses a cruelly sadistic heart. Literature Prize Winner Camus (1957), whose work often garnered absurdist and existentialist labels he did not welcome, offers a distinctly different ending to Caligula's treacherous tale then is the norm.

Young Emperor Caligula has recently lost his beloved sister Drusilla with whom it is claimed he had an incestuous relationship. Some say he has become deranged by her death, but in his own eyes, he has just come to his senses.

Theo Herdman is riveting as the immoral young Emperor Caligula, his every word, pause and movement speaks of cruel duality. Abigail Longstaffe is similarly mesmerizing as his slavish accomplice and companion Caesonia. It is heart wrenching to see the sorrow in her face at her lover's aberrations. Ben Crystal offers an emotive, sensitive performance as Caligula's senselessly dedicated friend, Scipio and Patrick Ross turns in a solid, multi-layered performance as Cherea, his intensely intelligent enemy. Warren Rusher as Caligula's henchman Helicon acts as a willing pit bull of sorts, ever at the service of his Emperor, whom, he claims, rescued him from slavery. Having praised these performers, I must add that all of the cast members are remarkably effective in their roles. Roy Khalil struggles to be brave in the face of unbridled cruelty as Octavius, Anthony Wise makes a jittery, fearful Patricius, Michael Grinter is forthright and vulnerable as Mereia, David Alderman is alternately resigned and foolhardy as Cassius, and Kevin Kautzman's Mucius is angry and embittered but, determined. Andrea Cullum and Kerry Fuentes seamlessly switch between being Caligula's playthings du jour, unwilling and agreeable respectively, and respectable Roman wives or companions and also, a pair of coldly mechanized royal guards.

Director Giles Gatrell-Mills has done a fine job with a decidedly difficult piece of theatre; enabling his actors to rise to the challenges their roles present. Input from Assistant Director Sarah Sigal must have also proved valuable. Movement Director Kitty Winter allows the project to ripen more fully with her imaginative staging ideas. Lighting Designer Steve Miller performs his usually reliable job of shedding light wherever it is most effective at any given moment. Ben Hampson's Sound Design heightens tension and strengthens scenes in all the right places, without overshadowing the action, further emphasizing the fact that this is a collaborative production. The contributions of Production Manager Emma Beeb, Production Assistant Agnes Costa-Correa and Designer Tomasin Cuthbert are also factors in the production's understated, tasteful presentation. The sparsely propped performance space boasts two contemporary versions of classical busts on plinths which Caligula seems to confer with in moments of decision and a tarpaulin-covered, grit strewn floor. Forties styled costumes are very effective, but the women's dresses are an especially elegant blending of WWII era detailing and ancient Roman flavours. My only complaint about the set is that the placement of one of the busts partway back along one side of the theatre prevents a whole row of audience members from witnessing one particularly crucial scene in the play, a problem which could be quickly resolved were it to be moved from its current, off-centre spot to either end of the theatre.

Talon Arts production of Caligula is a gripping experience and its talented cast, director and crew offer a fine example of high powered, high caliber fringe theatre.

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