CALIGULA AND THE SEA at the VAULT Festival
“it’s the choice of subject matter that makes Caligula and the Sea sink, rather than swim”
Caligula and the Sea is a devised project about one of the most controversial Roman Emperors. What we know of Caligula’s life mostly comes down to us from a couple of unreliable sources, the historians Suetonius and Dio Cassius. And it’s Suetonius who tells us the story of how Caligula allegedly went mad and declared war on Neptune, god of the sea. Caligula’s isolated upbringing on the island of Capri and the relationship he develops with Neptune, is the subject of Yuxuan Liu’s Caligula and the Sea. The Company gives us a condensed version of Caligula’s life, using actors, some puppetry, and a versatile blue gauze backdrop that doubles as the sea. The show is full of clever ways to miniaturize the vast settings that form the backdrop to this tragic tale.
In Caligula and the Sea, we first meet Caligula as a young boy, growing up under the eye of his paranoid uncle Emperor Tiberius. It’s a lonely life and Caligula’s only friend is Cassius Chaerea, who is everything Caligula is not. Cassius tries to turn Caligula into a soldier like himself but it’s clear that they are very different people. Nevertheless, they have a strong bond. They play games like reenacting the assassination of Julius Caesar. The sea, meanwhile, is busy throwing things out onto the shore, and for fun, Caligula starts to throw them back. Then the god Neptune arrives, and makes a deal with the young man. If Caligula will pay Neptune proper respect by destroying Rome’s aqueducts so that the water in them can flow to the sea, Neptune will make him Emperor. Predictably, everything goes downhill from that moment. And we’re not just talking about aqueducts. Yuxuan Liu’s production of Caligula and the Sea has a dreamlike quality to it, which is only appropriate, given the subject matter, and the way it is presented.
Caligula and the Sea’s greatest strength is its imaginative switchings between the world of the sea and the world on land. Both are brutal places, but the brutality is softened with by the use of puppets and props, rather than people. A small ship tosses on a stormy sea; the land is strewn with remnants of Roman pillars, which in turn double as containers for props when needed. There’s lots of ingenuity in the way the Company shifts scenes, from an exciting chariot race, to flying birds, using just three actors. But the actors struggle to fill the space in the aptly named Cavern at the VAULT Festival. Felix Ryder brings a ready sympathy to his portrayal of Chaerea but Noah Silverstone as Caligula is at sea in his role in more ways than one. Riko Nakazono makes graceful transitions between playing the god Neptune and a number of other roles, including that as puppeteer for a flying bird.
But ultimately, it’s the choice of subject matter that makes Caligula and the Sea sink, rather than swim. Perhaps this show’s chief weakness is that there are more puppets and special effects needed, and more puppeteers. Caligula and the Sea is a show with lofty aspirations, but in this version at least, has a way to go before it succeeds.
Reviewed on 1st March 2023
by Dominica Plummer
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