The Roman emperor Caligula is best known for making his horse a senator, but the figure portrayed in Albert Camus’s early play ‘Caligula’ had an over-arching and terrible significance.
Addicted to theatrical cruelty, and delighting in taking logic to extremes – a flatterer who said he would gladly exchange his life for his emperor’s (when the emperor feigned sickness) was taken up on his offer – Caligula generated universal terror, and was eventually lynched. Camus claimed the death of Caligula’s beloved sister Drusilla had tipped him into madness, and he turned the story into a quasi-philosophical quest for the impossible, ending in a ‘superior suicide’.
The German composer Detlev Glanert takes Camus’s argument further, seeing Caligula as reflecting ‘the absurdity of the human situation’, and claiming that we all understand him ‘because we all have the capacity to become such a monster’. Director Benedict Andrews makes even more pretentious claims: Caligula ‘tests the limits of all social contracts’; he’s a ‘madman, clown, psychotic, politician, supreme leader’, and ‘we feel his violent loneliness, his despair, his terrifying intelligence.’
That debatable ‘we’ – most of us grow out of our teenage existential angst - doesn’t stop Andrews cramming his production with right-on political references. The stage is a sports stadium (check Pinochet) where the spectators wave little yellow flags (Kim Jong-Il) as innocents are butchered (Franco, Hitler); Caligula brandishes a gold Kalashnikov (Saddam), and his lynching recalls Gadhaffi’s; there’s even a character sporting Rebekkah Brooks’s Gorgon locks: enough already! Glanert and his librettist Hans-Ulrich Treichel have focused on Caligula’s intensifying paranoia, and for a while the production reflects this inventively, thanks largely to Peter Coleman-Wright’s extraordinary incarnation of the emperor’s passage from a deranged wreck in dirty underpants, to grey-suited spiv, to grotesque tyrant in drag. The courtiers (well-sung and convincingly acted) are painfully recognisable professional sycophants, while Drusilla’s re-animated corpse wanders naked and beautiful through Caligula’s waking dream.
The score may be an amalgam of Mahler, Berg, Britten, Weill, and Strauss, but it has a restrained and noble integrity, and it creates a momentum powerfully reinforced by the amplified heartbeats which are Glanert’s recipe for drawing us inside his hero’s head. But by making the politics so glib, and the sex-and-violence so pornographically in-your-face, Andrews has ensured that though his show makes a splash, it ultimately founders in its own banality.