Caligula: The Reign of Terror
Ancient Rome in all his mad splendour visits the Brisbane stage in The Danger Ensemble’s new play, Caligula. Artistic director Steven Mitchell Wright spoke with QP’s Andrew Shaw.
The Roman Emperor Caligula is one of the most reviled people in history. Incest, murder, parricide, torture, megalomania, the list of his alleged evils goes on and on, amplified through the ages.
The Roman historian Suetonius, from whom we get most of the Caligula legend, writes:
“The method of execution he preferred was to inflict numerous small wounds; and his familiar order: ‘Make him feel that he is dying!’ soon became proverbial.”
Writing 80 years after Caligula’s death, Suetonius pulls no punches with his deadpan approach to telling it like it was. He writes that Caligula never kissed the neck of his wife without telling her he could cut her throat whenever he chose.
By his command, Caligula murdered Romans of low and high birth, and enjoyed playing his own guards against each other, the threat of death always present. And eventually they got tired of his deadly games. Caligula’s high-handed style of rule ultimately got him assassinated, at the age of 29, by the very guards meant to protect him. He was emperor for not quite four years.
Caligula’s life has been immortalised in novel and film, notably Robert Graves’ historical fiction, I, Claudius, Albert Camus’ play Caligula, and an epic 1979 film starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren featuring a real orgy directed by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione – fortunately, Gielgud did not participate.
Steven Mitchell Wright, artistic director of Brisbane theatre company The Danger Ensemble, thinks there’s more to Caligula than porn and sadism and he wonders how much we can pin down an historical figure and separate man from myth. He suggests that time has done Caligula a disservice, and he aims to bring a broader perspective on the man and the way history distorts our perspective in his new production, Caligula.
Wright says it’s hard for us to imagine the power Caligula possessed. “The closest we can come to being an emperor now is when we pay performers on sex websites to do what we want them to do,” he says. “And I actually believe our entire idea of entertainment and art comes from the time of Caligula and just before. You look at the most successful films now, there’s violence and there’s sex. That’s what people want to see.
“We look at Caligula and say ‘he had power and he abused it’,” Wright says. “But I think we all seek that kind of power in small ways. The thing we can’t fathom is the size of his empire. It was huge and he had ultimate control over that empire. He didn’t need more money or land, he could exercise his will. I think Caligula wants more. Camus writes him as wanting the impossible: he wants the moon. I think everyone can relate to wanting more; and when you have everything, what more can you get?”
The Danger Ensemble’s Caligula, like its previous works, promises to be grounded in physical theatre. Wright says rather than a singular reading, he wants to create something with a multitude of readings so the audience can take away its own perspective. “There’s an arc to the work that is not linear, there’s a journey through it, it’s an adventure.
“I’m encouraging audiences to read it like a dance work or a piece of music or art.” He says there’s a kind of “intellectual S&M” in the work; that it is “erotic without being sexual”. The performance will include five songs sung live by Lucinda Shaw, writer-performer with Silver Sircus, who Wright chose for what he calls her ability to convey “an other-worldly energy”.
Wright suggests New York’s Club Kids in the late-80s, early 90s, led by Michael Alig, had similarities to Caligula’s court. “The Club Kids started celebutante club culture. They lived however they wanted, they fucked whoever they wanted and took lots of drugs”. (Ultimately, Alig was jailed for manslaughter after he and a friend killed his drug dealer and mutilated his corpse.)
“There’s a section of text in the show that we found on the internet, it’s the social media instructions for group sex or orgies,” Wright offers. “It says: ‘An orgy is a place where you lose your sense of social identity for a time’. To me, Caligula and Michael Alig stayed in the orgy for too long. They lost that sense of identity forever.”
Caligula, Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, 420 Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley, July 3-12, 2014. Bookings judithwrightcentre.com or (07) 3872 9000.