It’s not every director who can make something out of a play, in this case the 1944 existentialist template “Caligula,” concerned — no, obsessed — with nothingness. But tackling a rarely staged absurdist classic from Albert Camus that could be assumed to be the exclusive province of the schoolroom, Michael Grandage not only tilts the Donmar well away from the American axis on which the studio theater thrived under his predecessor, Sam Mendes. On a more immediate level, Grandage brings to blistering life an amazing drama that may flirt with notions of “pure goodness (and) evil” but understands that humankind, even at its most hateful, is capable of encompassing both.
In cultural terms, the very mention of the Roman emperor must conjure for many a memory of the 1980 kitschfest of the same name, a Penthouse-produced movie featuring the odd hard-core foray, a supporting cast including Helen Mirren and John Gielgud and Bob Guccione as producer. Enter Grandage, who not for the first time upends preconception by grabbing a chosen play by its throat. Though the idea of spending an evening with characters called Helicon and Mucius might put one in mind of the classics lessons you may have wanted to skip out of, “Caligula” on this evidence packs a charge that comes less from humanizing a tyrant — Camus is no sentimentalist — than in animating for keeps even the most damnable ruler’s dance with death.
When first seen, Michael Sheen’s casually dressed, sandal-wearing Caligula scarcely seems interested in human life, preferring, indeed, to give the treasury pride of place over such messy emotional commonplaces as love. (That doesn’t bode well for Caesonia, his decapitation-happy concubine.) It isn’t long, however, before Camus’ cutthroat ways are seen, indeed, in the context of the incestuous brother who is still grieving the loss of his sister, Drusilla. If Caligula is hurting, why shouldn’t others — or, to coopt the language of David Greig’s terrifically pungent new translation, if this leader can “taste the darkness,” why should his subjects glimpse the light?
What follows is a philosophical roundtable between Caligula and those around him (the relativist Scipio, preeminently) that finally bears down on the title character’s own divided self: What difference does grief or shame make given the inevitability of death, a finality so marked that the journey toward it scarcely matters? And yet, even the most extreme tyrant, one assumes, is not immune to a terror of the soul that Camus defines as a confidence given way to abject fear that finds Caligula in the most absurd position of all: alive at the very end, when by anyone’s reckoning he should be dead.
It must have been tempting to adapt a drama written in full awareness of the Holocaust and the horrors of war to our own riven time, an option Nicholas Hytner has taken to largely thrilling effect in his National Theater “Henry V.” But Grandage finds what’s timeless about the play — for a start, the costumes mix period garments with modern dress — without (thank heaven) sensationalizing it or twisting it into a Saddam Hussein-themed bioplay.
As acted by Sheen in this wonderful young actor’s return to the British theater after more than four years (time spent largely in L.A.), Caligula is no more one-dimensionally envenomed than was Sheen’s transformative Jimmy Porter in the National’s most recent “Look Back in Anger.” Wild-eyed with bloodlust one minute (having murdered Lepidus’ sons, Caligula speaks of wanting to “cauterize” the same patrician’s heart), he is the “lost soul” spoken of by Scipio (Ben Turner) the next. And while one might assume a single note of mania struck throughout, both Sheen and Grandage permit a leavening gallows humor. Being a tyrant, after all, can be lonely when you’ve slaughtered everyone in sight. That way of working, we’re told, “leaves the room somewhat bare.”
The physical production finds the amplitude to be had in an apparently pared-back staging, in the best Donmar tradition. Christopher Oram’s design aesthetic is at its most shimmering, the Donmar’s defining back wall glistening with gold off of which Neil Austin’s lighting twinkles, as if to suggest the galaxy that is about the one thing Caligula cannot have. (“If I sleep,” he inquires, ever restless, “who will give me the moon?”)
Vamping about as a semi-crazed Venus in the drag act that kicks off the second act, Sheen’s Caligula is inseparable from the soundscape that threatens to engulf him, from the sibilant chorus of “still nothing” at the play’s outset through to its near-operatic close. (The invaluable sound designer is Fergus O’Hare, his contribution inseparable from Adam Cork’s music.) That sense of an ambience refusing to be silenced works wonders for a play that at times tips its hat toward “Macbeth,” another treatment of a crazed leader haunted by the dead whom these most warped of men perceive to be still among the living. Was Saddam Hussein so haunted, or Hitler? We cannot know. But “Caligula” artfully gives us the charisma and wit of madness — Sheen is charming and terrifying, in turn — alongside the freefall that sets in when “the eternal joy of the unpunished killer” comes home to claim the murderer.