Arts: Theatre: A sadist's dilemma - too much thought, not enough action

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S NO confusing Caligula, the Camus stage play, with Caligula The Movie, notoriously disowned by everyone from star Malcolm McDowell to writer Gore Vidal. The former is about as camp and laughably kinky as a weekend study course in French existential philosophy, which it intermittently resembles. And as for piquant perversities, the most prominent ones in Ivo van Hove's production for the Dutch company, Het Zuidelijk Toneel, are to be found in the staging concept.

The play, here delivered in its first version (1938), is worth reviving, though. What, it asks, with an appalled eye on its own period, would be the consequences of putting a nihilistic view of human existence into political practice? Caligula's mad reign of terror is presented not as the outcome of lunacy but as the young emperor's considered response to the existential crisis he suffers when the sudden death of his sister- lover gives him a piercing vision of the Absurd. So all his barmy, sadistic, arbitrary measures are to be seen, in this account, as philosophy in action. But a man can't destroy everything without destroying himself, and as Caligula bows to that logic, he connives in mobilising his own killers.

Van Hove's production seizes with a vengeance on the idea that the piece is more about reflection than action, to the point where the drama feels wilfully drained of life. In Jan Versweyveld's design, the Playhouse stage has been stripped right back to the brick wall to present a Roman palace that is like a vast death bunker. Indeed, even before Caligula's change of mood takes effect, this place seems to have all the animation of a morgue, with its modern-suited men sitting listlessly at dimly lit desks. Face-mikes allow the lines to be muttered meditatively: at times, the audience feels so ignored, you have to pinch yourself to credit that you're still there.

An onstage cameraman captures Caligula's progress on live video, though the emperor balks at being followed into the room where he rapes a friend's young wife. Voyeurism has to be satisfied with an ogling close up of the handle of the door behind which this casual barbarity is happening. Van Hove extracts moments of black comedy from the bank of video screens on which the patricians and senators appear as a disembodied row of talking heads.

Sometimes, it's true, you would need to be Dutch to get the full beauty of the joke. For example, Caligula stages a poetry competition (subject, death; time-limit, one minute) like a speeded-up version of The Gong Show. The people on the screens who get rudely interrupted by his whistle are, it seems, leading lights of the literary world in The Netherlands and Flanders - a gag not calculated to elicit paroxysms of mirth in Edinburgh.

Steven van Watzermeulen, who plays the title role, is an actor of great sensitivity and presence. He traces the development of the hero's existential pain most impressively. Or he just kept wishing that the director would let him go more. In the scene where the emperor blasphemously poses as Venus to extort alms from the public, it's characteristic that there's not a hint of a grotesque drag act in the muted handling of it here. "It's all a bit bloodless," comments Caligula of a friend's poetic effort. The same could also be said of this production.