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Review: SUDS’ Caligula

A memorable production that speaks to grief, paranoia, and the inadequacy of excess

Photography by Jake Starr. Photography by Jake Starr.

Akin to Albert Camus’s Caligula, SUDS’ production, under the capable direction of Jess Zlotnick, doesn’t seem to be interested in finding out the “true history” behind Rome’s third emperor, or the gratuitous displays of his legendary madness. Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to be about Caligula himself, not as we know him from our historical sources at least. SUDS enlivens this play into a seething, sweating tangle that spirals the audience into its inevitable, “logical” end in the tightly packed Cellar Theatre.

After the death of his sister (and rumoured lover) Drusilla, the young Roman emperor Caligula (Caitlin Williams) embarks on a new philosophy: to demonstrate the futility of love and happiness, he seeks freedom and the impossible by terrorising his subjects. However, he comes to realise that these antics have built the very prison from which he can no longer escape.

SUDS’ Caligula is a glittering spectacle bedecked with modern makeup, mannerisms, and music — albeit with a nod to the flamboyant decadence one would expect of imperial Rome. The majority-female cast lends a transcendent sense of gender-fluidity to the characters, particularly in their gaudy, motley costumes. This pageant declares itself uninterested in historical details, locating itself instead in a metaphysical realm in which Caligula becomes a symbol, or philosophical conjecture, of empty hedonism.

Throughout the play, the set does not change: a simple, long table to which the cast adds visual dynamism as they arrange themselves on top, beside, or below it. The stage is rarely empty too; during a seemingly private conversation between Caligula and his wife Caesonia (Serena Dalton), the patricians lurk behind, then sweep around their emperor to punctuate his speech. This powerful arrangement serves as a reminder that Caligula’s philosophical rampage cannot be confined to a private sphere by nature of his station. As emperor, the public seeps into his interior life in an almost voyeuristic way — and cannot escape his schemes.

All sixteen actors were fantastic. In particular, Williams delivers an astounding Caligula from the moment she crawls onstage as a young emperor made beast-like by three days of wandering in the countryside. Throughout the production, her Caligula arrests the theatre as she toes the line between insanity and control, ferocity glimmering in her eyes even as Caligula asserts the logic of his actions. The sardonic Cherea (Margaret Thanos) lends a wonderful foil to him, played with military efficiency. Sarah Doyle plays the morally-upright poet Scipio with a wet-eyed earnestness that marks him out from the other patricians, who would on one hand flatter Caligula, then conspire to assassinate him when his back is turned.

Ultimately, SUDS’ Caligula is, in all its hypnotic and glimmering splendour, a truly spectacular and memorable production that speaks to grief, paranoia, and the inadequacy of excess.