Among the many things Roman Emperor Caligula is purported to have ordered was to make his horse a consul and to be referred to as a God. So, it doesn’t feel too much of a leap for him to declare war on the sea. But long before any of this, Caligula (Noah Silverstone) was exiled to Capri alongside his guard, friend and confidant Cassius (Felix Ryder). Here, as well as the two becoming more than friends, Caligula meets Neptune (Riko Nakazono), God of the sea, where he makes a deal for absolute power.
Caligula And The Sea is, under the direction of Yuxuan Liu, hugely impressive in both technical and staging. The use of fabric to bring in the sea is excellent, while Fiona McKeon’s set design and visual aesthetic allow for striking visuals, from a forceful storm to a receding tide. And even in this relaxed performance, Aaron J Dootson’s lighting and Hannah Bracegirdle’s sound remain impressive. There is also noteworthy use of puppetry, designed by Silverstone, used to represent Neptune in his various forms, from bird to eel.
But the short running time tries to cram in an epic story, beginning with Caligula’s exile, his rise to power and through to his eventual assassination. The problem is that it doesn’t leave enough space to breathe. The whole thing feels just a little rushed. The early subtlety and nuance within the script that explores the early days of his relationships with both Cassius and Neptune soon gets thrown aside. We then get an almost Trump-esque commentary on a chariot race by Caligula, and even more bizarrely, a scene set to Gloria Gaynor which is jarring tonally, and only serves to pull the audience out of ancient Rome and back into a VAULT auditorium.
A bit of restraint could go a long way in narrowing the huge contrast between the quality of the visuals and staging and some of the over-the-top moments in the script. As it is, both script and delivery feel too staged and artificial, making it difficult to see characters rather than just the actors. It’s only in rare moments that the characters stand out, mainly in the relationship between Caligula and Cassius.
Caligula and the Sea is devised by the company, which may be a case of too many cooks. Individual aspects are often excellent, but the rest is crying out for a more critical eye during its development, someone to simply say ‘no’ now and again. I so wanted to love this show, it seemed a stand-out of the week’s programme at VAULT Festival. But whilst the design, tech and visuals more than deliver, the rest needs a complete overhaul. There is clearly huge talent involved so you’d hope it wouldn’t take a deal with Neptune to turn this into something so much better.
Directed & Produced by: Yuxuan Liu
Dramaturgy by: Jacey Casel
Set & Costume Design by: Fiona McKeon
Puppet Design by: Noah Silverstone
Sound Designed & Composed by: Hannah Bracegirdle
Lighting Design by: Aaron J Dootson
Movement Direction by: Sean Croft
Caligula and the Sea played as part of VAULT Festival 2023, and has completed its current run.