THEATRE REVIEW: Caligula

The Danger Ensemble likes to live up to the name — testing the boundaries of experimental theatre, confounding expectations of narrative and taste, and generally taking a lot of risks. Like the ensemble’s previous fare, Caligula serves a challenge to its audience, asking how far we are willing to follow them and threatening to leave the meek behind.

My enduring image of Matthew Barney’s art project The Cremaster Cycle remains a painted, white-suited satyr, dragging himself laboriously through a Vaseline-filled duct. It’s grotesque: overtly sexual but lacking clear meaning. (I always assumed it was an allegory for the journey through the vas deferens, but to each their own.) It was this image that sprang to mind during Caligula. Director Steven Mitchell Wright has omitted enormous quantities of petroleum jelly from his production — perhaps even the wonderfully adventurous Judith Wright Centre has its limits — but the set is creative, nonetheless. The stage is a raised trapezoidal platform; the centre is filled with clear plastic cups. The cups give the impression of water or gems, albeit far louder when stepped on. The performers will spend most of their time cavorting on the raised edges, though they journey periodically into their crackling pool to wade or writhe about. The strongest aspect of Caligula is the visual design — from the costumes to the props and the characters’ physicality, the imagery is the most memorable part of this show.

Caligula: Chris Beckey

Perhaps the most striking image of the entire performance is the opening tableau: five busts wreathed in fog, immersed in a bassy, ambient soundscape. As the lights go down the characters behind them peel away from the dusty stone artifacts to come to noisy, lascivious life.

Initially we are treated to a brief history lesson, delivered in a bratty, synchronised monologue by performers Gabriel Comerford and Stephen Quinn. Wearing spectacles and cardigans, their scarcely restrained genitals bouncing in g-strings, the two introduce us to Caligula, who scandalised the Roman Empire during his brief reign as emperor between 37 and 41 CE. We will be taken on a tour of incest and general debauchery.

It’s around this point that shit starts to get weird. We meet sexy siblings Caligula (Chris Beckey) and Drusilla (Lucinda Shaw). Beckey manages to conjure the entire character of Caligula through voice alone, commanding and licentious, entirely sure of himself in his depravity and probable insanity. Unfortunately this does nothing to dispel the jarring tackiness of Drusilla launching into a mournful rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”. Shaw has a distinctive and powerful voice, best showcased on some of the later numbers. That’s not the problem here: the song is simply incongruous, and not in a way the aids the ensemble’s agenda.

Incongruity is an intentional part of Caligula; the show is not a linear narrative – it is not, in any real sense, a narrative at all. Instead it is a chain of impressions, images and ideas, including borrowed texts and scraps of pop culture. We are spectators to a carnival of highly sexualised folly. There is a sense that Wright and his creatives would like to link the story of Caligula and his hungers to our modern selves, a magnificent temporal fantasy of exhibitionism and desire. Unfortunately, it seems like the ensemble may be expecting too much from their audience on this front. Stripped of narrative, there isn’t enough material to conceptualise these links, and the end result is baffling and unsatisfying.

Caligula: Nerida Matthaei

Caligula relies heavily on shock value to give it weight, and in this aspect it feels as though they’re not giving their audience enough credit. At one point the performers engage in a kind of call-and-response interlude resembling a chat-room conversation or series of personal ads for fetish encounters. The content is intended to be shocking but the result is banal — there’s a glibness to their delivery that suggests that the performers aren’t quite committed to the conceit.  Nerida Matthaei is a superb physical performer, and her dance and movement throughout Caligula are no exception, but I can’t make myself believe she really wants the filthy things she’s asking for. Which is a pity — earnestness might go a long way here.

Despite the assertion towards the show’s end that the 21st century is home to an apathetic generation (why is that a thing in theatre at the moment?) I believe that what audiences crave is sincerity — no matter the subject matter. Performances that push the boundaries, like Caligula, are precious in the world of theatre, especially in Brisbane. Your audience is there because they want to leap into the void with you — if you let them.

CALIGULA plays at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts until 12 July. Tickets $20–35, restricted to viewers 18+.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.

REVIEW: Sons of Sin

A bathtub. Giant playing cards. Splattered blood. Casting a circle around these few props, nine bearded young men crack open bottles of beer. In turn, the audience circles the party: we are at once voyeurs, witnesses, accusers, accomplices and confidants. 

The Danger Ensemble vows to “question what theatre is and re-vision it for the future.” Whatever your take on this unusual production, you’ve gotta hand it to ‘em — the ensemble’s visions are bold, brave and compelling.

Sons of Sin, directed by Steven Mitchell Wright, takes the form of a game. The cards lie facedown before the performers; which ones they draw, in turn, will determine the shape of the show. One card grants the audience permission to name any dare; another demands the creation of a new group rule or the confession of a secret; yet another signals the unfolding of a surreal tableau.

No two shows are the same, and it’s likely you’ll see things you’ve never seen in a theatre space before. You might even be the one to suggest them.

Sons of Sin

For the nine actors (Alex Fowler, William Horan, Thomas Hutchins, Aaron Wilson, Ron Seeto, Chris Farrell, Samuel Schoessow, Charlie Schache and Stephen Quinn), Sons of Sin is an incredibly demanding show. It’s luck of the draw what they’ll need to perform next, from prepared monologue to improvised violence to nude scenes. The cast’s chemistry holds this show together; they seem to possess a hive mind. Collectively, they possess a burning, restless energy that makes it hard to tell one from another.

Sons of Sin explores the condition of the modern “lost boy” — risk-taking 20-somethings with energy to burn, anger to bottle and insecurities to drown. There’s no overarching narrative; rather, the characters expose more of themselves, piece by piece, through the game.

The show covers a lot of ground, but its chance nature prevents Sons of Sin from becoming an exhaustive survey of masculinity — good move. That said, the cast avoid some fantastic opportunities for development; when an audience member asks, “You’re white, male and middle class — why are you so angry?” during a session of “truth”, the question is fobbed off as boring, and we return to questions about masturbation, sharting, etc.

It’s an interesting work to compare with Daniel Santangeli and Genevieve Trace’s Room 328 (Metro Arts, Brisbane Powerhouse) and Sven Swenson’s The Truth About Kookaburras — both Brisbane productions concerning Lost Boys. (Incidentally, Brisbane stages have seen a lot of cock in the last few years. Just pointing that out.) In style, Sons of Sin is closest to Room 328, but in tone it is much more intimidating. The sons’ power dwells, tossing and turning, in their unpredictability.

I admit I’m immediately won over by any show that invites me in. In an immersive production, it can be just as interesting to watch the audience as the performers. You’ll speak with, drink with and probably touch these men, and it’s impossible not to be absorbed into their chaos. A warning, though: wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet or even stained. Fluids will fly. (Funnily enough, I had a glass of wine spilled over me not by a performer, but by a fellow audience member. Oh, well.) And do be aware that Sons of Sin is confronting and changeable.

By Z. Frost

The Judith Wright Centre has gutted and transformed its main theatre space for this show. For anyone who regularly visits the Judy, it’s aptly disorienting. The JWC website states that Sons of Sin may run for anywhere between 90 and 110 minutes. We got more bang for our buck (or review comps, yes); opening night’s running time, interval included, was closer to 150 minutes.

In the second half, the incredible demands on the cast start to show; the performers’ energy begins to waver, and so does ours — especially as motifs repeat, by chance. (After nearly two and a half hours of standing, following, ducking and dancing, the audience swarms from the theatre towards somewhere to sit down.)

Sons of Sin works best in its scenes of action — whether spontaneous or choreographed — as well as moments of reflection. The show suffers from dense, shouted monologues that cause the game to lag. The Sons already show their sins so well, there’s often no need to tell. The inclusion of a verbose climax suggests that Wright and co-devisors don’t trust the game to speak for itself. It does.

Sons of Sin holds up a broken mirror to a culture of casual violence. If you let them, The Danger Ensemble will take you on a wild, exhausting, worthy ride. Wear a raincoat. Pick your poison. Think up some wicked dares.

SONS OF SIN runs at the Judith Wright Centre until 25 May, 2013.