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Caligula and the Sea
Design @ Jed Berry

Interview: Gods and Emperors

Director Yuxuan Liu on VAULT Five and Caligula and the Sea

Selected as one of the VAULT Five participants, Yuxuan Liu brings Caligula and the Sea to VAULT Festival from 28 February. A good time then to sit down with Yuxuan for a chat and as a bonus, writer Jacey Casel joined us to add a little more about their play.

Hi Yuxuan, nice to meet you, let’s start with a little about Caligula and the Sea?

Hi! My name is Yuxuan Liu. I am the director and lead artist for Caligula and the Sea. As a director, I mostly work with devised shows and new writing, varying from children’s theatre to the reimagining of classic plays.

Caligula and the Sea is a devised piece of new writing about Caligula, a young Roman emperor who was rumoured to have declared war against the sea. We are telling the story using text, puppetry, music, and movement, exploring themes of power, friendship, masculinity, and the environment.

What inspired the company to devise this play and choose Caligula as the protagonist?

Jacey: The seed of the play was the (possibly inaccurate) story of Caligula’s declaration of war against the sea. What if, instead of dismissing the story as a strategy to prevent a mutiny or a misinterpretation of the Latin word for seashells, the emperor declared war on Neptune?

Yuxuan: I’d say this version of Caligula is an anti-hero whose motivations probably don’t line up with our morality. So on top of being an interesting and complex character, I think his attitude, actions, and mistakes toward power, love, and the co-existence with nature in this play have kept us thinking about the relevance of his story to our world today in rehearsals.

Photo @ Lidia Crisafulli

Can you talk about the creation process of Caligula and the Sea and how it has evolved over time?

Through a devised process, everybody has been able to work closely and organically to create this show from scratch. We are utilising text, movement, puppetry, original soundtrack, and soundscapes to tell the story. Our dramaturg and writer in the room, Jacey, turned scenes devised by the company during the R&D week into a compelling, gripping, and beautiful story.

Our designers have also been working very closely with us and it was so rewarding watching the design develop and grow alongside the script over the past few months. Each element of the design; set, costume, sound, lighting, puppet, really feels like a distinct character on its own and they work so integrally and in harmony with each other.

I have really enjoyed playing around with some wild and crazy possibilities throughout this process from a range of props and sound materials. Not all of them made it into the final show… but great fun nonetheless!

We’ve also worked closely with our movement director Sean Croft, who has breathed so much life, playfulness, and precision into the movement and physical language. Overall, our creative process has been so inventive, fun, and organic. I think this is going to be a visually, auditorily, and textually exciting and entertaining show to watch.

We love the description as suggesting ‘not-so-historically-accurate’, what was your aim in such a description?

Jacey: Something that I find interesting about Caligula is how few contemporary accounts survive of his short time in power. Suetonis’ “Life of Caligula”, which was published eighty years after his death and is prone to hyperbole, is the earliest biographical text we have to work with. This sort of historical instability gives us the opportunity to shape Caligula’s character in new ways.

Yuxuan: Growing up, I learnt about Caligula from a mixture of historical facts and fictional reinventions. And it was always interesting to me how artists over time give themselves some creative license when telling the story of Caligula. Even though our play is set in a fictional and fantastical world, I think it says something universal and timeless about human nature. I hope the audience will see a bit of themselves and the world we live in today when they watch it.

We’ve talked to a load of creatives about their VAULT experience and they all mention huge support from everyone at The Vaults. In your case, you were selected as one of the participants in VAULT Five, how has that helped you?

I cannot imagine being where I am right now without the support from the VAULT team, the VAULT Five programme, and all VAULT Festival artists who I’ve met along the way. I’ve really gained an insight into how things work during a theatre festival like this and have been surrounded by incredibly kind and talented people, which has been so helpful for an early-career creative like me taking a show to a theatre festival for the first time. I have also gotten support and help from my VAULT Five mentor Oliver Hymans and he has been incredibly kind and helpful. He is a director and puppet designer who has been the perfect mentor for this project and helped me improve as an artist so much.

What can you tell us about the puppetry and Noah Silverstone’s puppet design and creation?

Photo @ Lidia Crisafulli

In the story, Neptune, the god of the sea, is a form-changing god who befriends Caligula. We wanted Neptune to be an embodiment of the wider natural/oceanic world, so we didn’t want her to be limited to one bodily form. Instead, she can turn into different sea creatures (as well as a human) throughout this journey with Caligula in the mortal world. And puppetry has been the perfect medium to achieve that.
Noah works a lot with recycled and sustainable materials and the puppets for this show are made from almost entirely recycled materials. It was incredible seeing the puppets turning from bits of cardboard and foam during the R&D to finely made and painted animal puppets as you will see in the show. Noah’s puppet design and creation have a storybook and fantastical style, which is not only really entertaining to watch on stage but also will help the audience enter the world of a fantastical Rome that we’ve created where gods and sea monsters exist.

What is in store next for you and for Caligula and the Sea, do you have more plans after VAULT Festival?

I’m not entirely sure yet but in general I totally plan to take Caligula and the Sea further to bigger stages moving on. I think it is a fun, gripping, emotional, and, most importantly, entertaining show to watch. I would love to share it with audiences around the UK and even the world in the future and I also think it has the potential for a bigger ensemble if it was to be done again!

Finally, do you have any recommendations for other shows to check out at VAULT Festival?

So many incredible shows I want to watch this year! To name a few: Dark Matter, Right of Way, Time, No I.D., SNAIL and The Yellow Traffic Light.

Our thanks to Yuxuan (and Jacey!) who took time out of the first week of rehearsals to chat with us. Caligula and the Sea plays VAULT Festival 28 February to 5 March. Further information and tickets can be found here.

About Dave B

Originally from Dublin but having moved around a lot, Dave moved to London, for a second time, in 2018. He works for a charity in the Health and Social Care sector. He has a particular interest in plays with an Irish or New Zealand theme/connection - one of these is easier to find in London than the other! Dave made his (somewhat unwilling) stage debut via audience participation on the day before Covid lockdowns began. He believes the two are unrelated but is keen to ensure no further audience participation... just to be on the safe side.