What did I see last night at the Volkstheater? It was Camus’ Caligula—that much was clear. But it was part play, part drag show, part music video. The piece retained its impeccable existialist credentials, dealing intelligently with questions of radical freedom gone wrong, equality leading to tyranny, and wholesale destruction as the only escape from meaninglessness. Projections flashed across the background rapid-fire, tying those themes to everything from Communism in China to factory farming to the military-industrial complex. It was confusing, chaotic, impossible to keep track of the different layers of meaning. Somehow, miraculously, director Lilja Rupprecht’s choices created an aesthetically and emotionally unified whole (though I would be hard-pressed to articulate precisely what the unifying principles were). And every minute of it was exciting.
The opening scene screams ‘conservative’: the chorus of Roman senators appear in suits, complaining about ‘nichts.’ Nothing, that is. Nothing getting done. Nothing to be done about the emperor’s madness. Nothing turned up in their search for him. Rupprecht is intentionally setting up an expectation to be undermined. As the senators talk, a giant projection of Caligula’s head appears on a scrim in the background. When they leave, the scrim opens, and Caligula appears—stark-naked and covered in mud. As he disappears and re-appears through the set’s three doors, he articulates his ideas to his advisor Helicon. He has not gone mad over his sister Drusilla’s death, he insists. But he wants the impossible to become possible. He wants freedom. He wants (quite literally) the moon. Caesonia, who loves him, agrees to help him, though he warns her that it will mean both inflicting and suffering pain.
When his senators find him, he dictates a new law: all patricians will be required to disinherit their children and leave their property to the state. Then they will be killed. He overrules his senators’ protests and insists that one of them strip. When we see them again, it is three years later. They are wearing skimpy aprons. All have suffered family members’ deaths or humiliations at Caligula’s hands. They plot against him, but each also feels a secret tie to Caligula. In a chaotic dance number full of loud music and projections, Caligula questions each of them and Helicon announces that all shall die—it’s only a matter of time. Just as suddenly as it began, the dance number ends, and Caesonia asks the terrified senators for their artistic criticisms. In another bizarre episode, Caligula has himself declared a god. Wearing a tutu and white mask, he responds to all of Caesonia’s hype with a condescending ‘Ja.’ Accused of outraging the gods, he responds that he is glorifying them by instantiating them on earth, making the unreal real.
Helicon brings news of the plot to Caligula. When Caligula questions Cherea, the leader of the plot, Cherea readily confesses and explains their motivations. He understands Caligula’s radical freedom. But he can’t live in the arbitrary and terrifying world Caligula has created. He needs security and absolute morality, and he knows most others do, too. If Caligula kills him, others will take his place in working to undermine Caligula and restore order. Caligula plays the magnanimous leader, briefly, telling Cherea he should ‘live and be happy.’ But then he reappears with a gun. He gives the conspirators orders to discourse on various subjects. He shoots one. He makes another drink poison. He offers Cherea a gun, and Cherea almost shoots Caligula but at the final moment turns the gun on himself. Even Helicon dies for failing to deliver the moon. When only Caligula and Caesonia are left, he tells her that love has not been enough for him and shoots her, too. Then he shoots his reflection and falls, dead.
Anne Ehrlich’s set is simple: a wall with three doors. The doors open up to reveal mirrors, so the entire stage can be converted into a huge mirrored wall (as in the final scene). Moritz Grewenig’s projections sometimes integrate with the set, as when the wall seems to crumble away to reveal a masked theater audience. And sometimes they follow the performers instead, as when swirling streams of light emphasize Caligula’s self-proclaimed divinity. The costumes, by Annelies Vanlaere, offer an intriguing message in their own right. The senators are always a step behind Caligula. His costumes—nudity, a white tutu, a printed T-shirt and jeans—are replicated by them, with a delay. By the final scene, we have come full circle. He is in the conservative suit they opened the play in; they are all in white leotards and tutus. This gives the shootings in the final scene a double effect. Aesthetically, it feels like a balletic bird hunt, with swans gracefully falling to the ground as they are shot. Thematically, it foreshadows Caligula’s suicide. The tutu is his outfit, part of the sign of his divinity. As he kills everyone else wearing it, he is repeatedly killing himself.
The show largely works because of the skill and sheer commitment of the Volkstheater’s ensemble. Everyone on stage deserves commendation for pulling off utterly ridiculous outfits, dances, and scenarios without undermining the seriousness that lies at the heart of Camus’ play. But above all, credit goes to Max Wagner for his performance in the title role. I’ve been very impressed by him before, especially in Ghosts. He has a gift for inhabiting disturbed characters in a way that is occasionally funny but never pantomime-like. And he is perfect as Caligula. His understated desparate yearning and cool amorality contrast with his over-the-top dance numbers and declarations of divinity, but he creates a complete character that believably embodies both extremes. He also manages to seem perfectly at home onstage regardless of what he is (or isn’t!) wearing, a difficult feat even for an actor in Germany.
There are so many reasons to go see this play, I don’t even know where to begin. You are interested in existentialist philosophy. You like fast-paced sensory overload from your media experiences. You appreciate good acting. You are intrigued by the ways technology is used in theater. You just want a fun evening that will make you think. If any of those are true, the Volkstheater’s Caligula is well worth your time.