Caligula and the Sea, VAULT Festival

by Laura Kressly

Roman emperor Caligula has provided numerous artists with inspiration, and this year’s Vault Five artist Yuxuan Liu is no different. He has devised a new interpretation of Caligula’s story particularly focusing on the ruler’s megalomania, his queerness, and a bargain he made with Neptune as a young man in exile on Capri. Puppetry and set design effectively complement the script, and the prominent theme of nature’s power resonates strongly in the context of the climate crisis.

The story opens with young Caligula (Noah Silverstone) frustrated with isolated island life, despite having his lover Cassius (Felix Ryder) there with him. Desperate to be made Emperor Tiberius’ heir, he makes a pact with Neptune, who has emerged from the sea to make him an offer that would secure his reign – this is a nice nod to Macbeth. Later in Rome, he cements his popularity through a popular entertainment programme, but his brutality and poor leadership soon sours public opinion. Though this production downplays just how horrible he was reputed to be, the sea – Neptune – ultimately determines his fate.

The cast clearly distinguish themselves from each other, something that isn’t always the case in contemporary plays. Silverstone’s dictator is slight and petulant, like a teenager desperately trying to be perceived as more mature than their years. Ryder as the stoic Cassius has just as interesting of a journey, but his story is given far less time that the title role. As Neptune, Riko Nakazono at first seems unthreatening, but Caligula’s lack of cooperation later prompts her to change her tone. The force she wields is highly impressive. As a trio, they complement each other well though sometimes more intimacy and vulnerability would give Silverstone a chance to show more range. Puppetry introduces more characters; these are delightful and well-operated but underused.

On the whole this is a cohesive, dynamic take on a classical figure. The concept is thoughtful, and the production elements are tightly integrated with each other as part of a larger whole. This version of Caligula is alive rather than stuffy, and thematically relevant to the here and now.

Caligula and the Sea runs through 5 March.

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