Caligula is a provocative performance that is comprised of essential ideas and images by an ensemble willing to take risks.
Nerida Matthaei. Image by Dylan Evans Photography.
How to describe Caligula by The Danger Ensemble without spoiling some of the stunning imagery throughout the show? The dull and ignorant will talk of Kosky and Artaud, but there is so much more to this production.
Some of The Danger Ensemble’s work over the last few years – 2012’s Loco Maricon Amore, based on the relationship between Dali and Lorca and 2013’s brilliant exploration of fame and pop culture, The Wizard of Oz - have been experimenting with the definition of contemporary performance and exploring the heart of contemporary culture. We all know Dali, The Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland just like we all know the hedonist Roman Emperor, right? They are icons, symbols, legends and part of our cultural identity. So if we have assimilated these figures, their legends and their realities, what does that say about, and make us?
Caligula is a tightly sequenced, extravagant and provocative performance that is comprised of essential ideas and images by an ensemble willing to take risks. Everything fits and works for the purposes of the show, regardless of how this challenges the audience. From the highly stylised choreographed movement, to the live singing and re-contextualised pop songs, colloquial and classic text, to the nudity and graphic content - even if it made the audience squirm, gasp, laugh or walk-out in offence - it is there for a reason and that is to unpick a construction built over 2000 years that still resonates today. The show appeals to more than the ordinary ‘is it good or bad, right or wrong?’ dichotomy in terms of intellectual, emotional, psychological and aesthetic response from the audience because it shows we are all a little Caligula in our own ways.
The arc of the show is non-linear, but it takes the audience from the preconceived legend of the filthy swine to the poignant question of how will we all be remembered in the end.This could not have been possible without the power and subtlety of Chris Beckey in the title role, deftly alternating from tyrant to victim of his own contrivance.
The design is beautiful. Lighting and co-set designer Ben Hughes is a genius of simplicity and knows how to make evocative states from a seemingly bare rig. His use of colour against the set and the extravagance of the costume is masterful without being overwhelming. He and Director/Designer Steven Mitchel Wright create an interactive and sensory experience in their set with 35,000 plastic cups a central point of what is otherwise a bare, black box with three catwalks and two platforms. The sound of the cups, as well as the dynamic of their movement provide interesting counterpoint and texture throughout the performance.
Nathalie Ryner’s costumes are as involved and astounding as the set is simple, and, while most seem sourced from a sex-shop, it is absolutely what this physical and sensual performance calls for. The head-dress that Caligula’s sister, Drusilla, wears on her entrance is beautifully detailed and perfectly essential, as is the head-piece of Caligula’s first wife and his own glittering goat horns. The white body paint, simple white mankinis and full body bondage wear never seem out of place, only the appropriate choice for this constructed world.
This production is not for everyone – and why should it be? If it was it would be the homogenised, conventional sort of thing we see in most Queensland theatre. It should shake things up. You shouldn’t like all of it. You should disagree with the person sitting beside you after the show about whether it is beautiful, justified, fun or shocking. If we all feel the same then nothing changes and one thing The Danger Ensemble and organisations like the Judith Wright Centre are trying to do is to provide what Brisbane theatre does not.
Caligula is extravagant and confrontational, but only to the conventional and expected. If that’s what you want stay home and watch a renovation cooking show challenge. This production is a myth that we tell ourselves is about someone else, examined from a multitude of perspectives. If you want extraordinary performance, see this show and look further than what is presented and instead examine your own response to it and the resonance it has in this culture.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Danger Ensemble
Director/Designer: Steven Mitchell Wright
Associate Directors: Chris Beckey and Stephen Quinn
Creators and Performers: Chris Beckey, Gabriel Comerford, Nerida Matthaei, Steven Mitchell Wright, Stephen Quinn and Lucinda Shaw
Designers Benjamin Hughes and Nathalie Ryner
Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level