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BWW Review: CALIGULA at Holden Street Theatres

BWW Review: CALIGULA at Holden Street TheatresReviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 24th May 2018.

Red Phoenix Theatre Company scooped the pool at last year's Adelaide Critics Circle Awards, winning both the Amateur Group and Amateur Individual awards, with all three productions separately nominated. They were finalists the year before, having been nominated for their very first production. With that record, it was with considerable anticipation that critics and general audience members alike rushed to the opening night of Caligula, their first production for this year. This is David Greig's new translation of the play by Albert Camus and, like all of the company's productions, it is an Adelaide première, following their decision to perform only works that have never been seen here.

To everybody's delight, this first performance for the 2018 season lived up to the company's reputation for excellence and attention to detail. The group's artistic director, Michael Eustice, directed the production, assisted by co-founder, Libby Drake, and, as he always does, he has selected a superb cast and provided them with strong and coherent direction.

Caligula (little boot, the nickname of the third emperor of Rome), Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, lived a short life, from AD12-41. He became emperor at the age of 24 and, although initially popular, was assassinated five years later, after descending into madness and, supposedly, creating a reign of terror.

As the play opens, Caligula has been missing for three days, following the death of his sister/lover, Drusilla. When he returns, he is greatly changed, claiming that he wants to "bring the impossible into the realm of the likely". He has his own system of logic, that nobody dares to question or contradict, and makes it clear that he can do whatever he wants to whomsoever he wishes

Speaking of Adelaide Critics Circle Awards, Robert Bell, who plays the titular role, was a finalist under the Emerging Artist category for his role in a production of The Pillowman, and then won the Amateur Individual award for his lead role in The Elephant Man.

Brant Eustice plays Cherea (or Chaerea), head of the Praetorian Guard, who opposes Caligula and eventually leads the senators against him. Eustice was the winner of the Adelaide Critics Circle Award for Amateur Individual last year for his roles in two of the three Red Phoenix Productions: The Conspirators and Two Brothers, making it his third award from the Circle.

The credentials of the entire case, in fact, are impressive, some having worked professionally, and all of them having appeared in myriad productions. You should, by now, be getting some idea of the high quality of the people who have become involved with this company in the very short time that it has existed. Holden Street Theatres also quickly invited them to become the venue's resident theatre company, and wise move that has been of great benefit to both of them.

Bell makes a terrific, and terrifying, Caligula, giving us a megalomaniac who goes so far as to decide that he is a god, and insists on being accepted as such. He accepts that the treasury is of paramount importance, ordering everybody to change their wills, leaving everything to the state instead of their descendants, and executing people when a cash influx is needed urgently. A government placing the economy, an abstract human construct, ahead of people should sound very familiar to all Australians. One of his ideas to raise funds is to set up an Imperial brothel, make the wives of senators work there, and punish anybody who fails to spend a set minimum there each month. His ridiculing of the senators is just one part of his downfall.

Bell takes us on Caligula's rollercoaster ride, ambiguously interpreting the role such that we are never quite sure whether Caligula is really insane or whether it is all carefully planned and a cold and calculated deliberate attack on the status quo and the elite. Either way, Bell gives us a sensational performance as the multifaceted psychopath.

Brant Eustice gives another well-considered characterisation as Cherea, the voice of reason, holding back the more hotheaded senators who want to rush in and eliminate Caligula, until the time is right to do so without placing themselves at risk of retaliation. Cherea argues that we must have at least the illusion of security to keep us sane, placing him in direct opposition to Caligula. Eustice shows us a man carrying the weight of Rome on his shoulders.

Caligula has his supporters in two women, Helicon, who had once been a slave, played by Tracey Walker, and Caesonia, a past lover, played by Lyn Wilson, two very experienced, and highly respected performers. He tells Helicon that he spent the three days trying to capture the moon, and sets her the task of doing so for him. When she realises that he is serious about this, she humours him and promises to do her best. With his sister gone, Caesonia hopes to regain her position as his lover, and appears to meet with some degree of success, becoming, like Helicon, his mouthpiece for many of his announcements. Walker and Wilson both give strong performances as women basking in the glory of Caligula's reign, holding a power that they would never have, normally, but aware of the risks.

Scipio, the poet, played by Mark Mulders, also stands up to Caligula, and is fooled and humiliated for his concern. Mulders elegantly displays Scipio's emotional turmoil. Adrian Barnes, Joshua Coldwell, David Grybowski, David Lockwood, Mark Mulders, John Rosen, and Malcolm Walton play the group of senators, each contributing believable individual characters, and together making a fine ensemble. Ruby Faith, without a single line as the wife of Mucius, conveys so much through her facial expression and physical demeanour.

Kate Prescott's set, Sharon Mulujlo's costumes, and Richard Parkhill and Paul Tossell's lighting, are all highly commendable and superbly complete the visual aspects of the production.

The season ends next weekend, and some performances are already well on the way to selling out, so don't wait for a second to book tickets.

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From This Author Barry Lenny