“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.
“The performances marvellously capture all the aspects of love that the libretto tries to convey”
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love” was met with a mixed reception when first written and produced in the eighties, and it is indeed one of his more curious affairs. Its own meandering inception and evolution seems to match the rather convoluted plot, based on the autobiography of David Garnett, Virginia Woolf’s nephew. Originally mooted as a film for which Webber and Tim Rice were to contribute some songs, it morphed into an unrealised collaborative cabaret with Trevor Nunn at the helm, before lyricists Don Black and Charles Hart came on board to help steer the vessel in some sort of definite direction. Sandwiched between “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sunset Boulevard” it probably suffered from a lack of focus and some have said it lost its way.
Katie Lipson has untangled the rigging in this revival, first produced last summer at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, and put it well and truly back on track; also showing us that there is more to this musical than the hit song, “Love Changes Everything”. For there are some truly striking melodies which, by stripping the accompaniment back to just two pianos and percussion, are now allowed to shine through the otherwise lumbering sung-through dialogue.
The story begins with the character of Alex (Felix Mosse) who is looking back over his life. It then flashes back to 1947 when he fell in love with Rose Vibert (Kelly Price), the star of a touring acting company. The young Alex convinces the older actress to spend two weeks with him at his Uncle George’s unoccupied estate. When Uncle George (Jerome Pradon) returns unexpectantly and finds himself attracted to Rose, the complications begin. Complications not just for the characters within the story though; but for the producers too. The trick now is how to keep the audience engaged as the characters canoodle their way through the doodling plot, occasionally thrown off kilter by sudden shifts in time.
But Lipson has the Midas Touch when it comes to musical theatre and has once again assembled an impressively strong cast. The performances marvellously capture all the aspects of love that the libretto tries to convey. Jonathan O’Boyle’s confident direction allows the detail to be seen through the myriad scene and time changes. And if you don’t really care for the plot you certainly care about the characters.
Despite the heavy-handed feel of the piano accompaniment (which some tweaking on the sound desk could quickly cure) the vocal performances are beautiful and searingly moving. Mosse’s intimate yet unsentimental rendition of ‘Love Changes Everything’ is a delightful detour from the original, but the highlights of the show include Price’s heart rending ‘Anything But Lonely’ and Pradon’s understated opening to the Ivor Novello tinged ‘The First Man You Remember’.
But beyond this central love triangle is where the interest really lies. Madalena Alberto, as the free-loving Giulietta is compellingly watchable; Eleanor Walsh, as the fifteen-year-old Jenny, gives an assuredly mature performance that eschews the uncomfortable Lolita-style caricature that is often associated with the role. And Minal Patel, as actor manager Marcel, softly steals the smaller stage time he is allowed with his velvet voice.
It is a tricky show that explores perhaps too many variations on the theme of love. But it seems that this intelligent cast has picked one aspect, made it their own, and let it shine. Like the diamond in the mire, this clear-cut production lets the emotion glisten.