Review: Caligula

Rachel Cunliffe 23 June 2012


Queens’ College, 4.30pm, until Sat 23rd June


May Week is Cambridge’s apology to its students for everything else about Cambridge. All year we lock ourselves away in dimly-lit libraries, and our reward is one glorious week of drinking and debauchery (if you believe the Daily Mail), when we are allowed to just stop thinking for a bit. If, however, you’re suffering from academia withdrawal symptoms, BATS production of Camus’ ‘Caligula’ might be just the thing you need as you recover from that one-too-many shot of chilli vodka. Set outdoors on the charming lawn of Queens’ Cloister Court, it has everything the enthusiastic intellectual could ask for: philosophy, classics and witty dialogue, accompanied by an ensemble of musicians leaning out of a window in one of the upstairs rooms. Perfect.

The play itself is serious enough to be stimulating, without being too dry for my dangerously hungover brain. It presents the reign and death of the mad emperor Caligula, played by Mark Wartenberg. Wartenberg got off to a bit of a shaky start (possibly the result of the noise conditions, which I’ll come to in a moment), but quickly relaxed into the role, committing to the capricious nature of the character: one second jovial, the next utterly morose, the next murderous and insane. Matt Clayton as Helicon was electrifying to watch, particularly in his scenes with Wartenberg, and Jack Oxley (Metellus) and Jesse Haughton-Shaw (Scipio) were both excellent. Other performances were somewhat weaker, however, especially Chloe France’s Caesonia, which was flat and predictable, and James Greenwood’s Cherea, which lacked variation and subtlety. The best moments by far were the group scenes, with the emperor’s insanity at the center, enhanced by increasingly flamboyant costumes for Wartenberg, and the aforementioned music from above. (Seriously, the music was amazing – ingenious idea.)

In terms of setting, Cloister Court is a lovely venue to stage a show. The colonnade which formed the back of the stage worked perfectly, accented by a full-length mirror, which really added to the set. Unfortunately, it is also the main thoroughfare through Queens’. This meant that there was a constant procession of people walking through, not realising there was a performance going on until too late. Combined with noise from the building site, this made it extremely difficult to hear at some points. The actors mostly did a good job of projecting, but intimate exchanges were sometimes completely lost, especially if the actors were facing away. This was a real shame, especially since the script is a work of genius, and I was genuinely sorry to miss lines. While I understand that this is inevitable in an outdoor venue, some time spent working on volume and clarity would not have gone amiss.

All in all, I spent a lovely afternoon in the sunshine, watching a very entertaining play. While not exactly a must-see, if you have a spare two hours, Caligula is definitely not time wasted. There is something quintessentially Cambridge about watching Camus on a lawn in between glasses of Pimms, so if your punting intentions fall through, this is a very worthy backup plan.

Rachel Cunliffe