Eerie white effigies stand in a row in the dim recesses of the stage behind a glimmering pool of empty plastic cups that make the most sensational sound when they are disturbed. This is the scene of a party that is long since over, the debris of excess the only evidence of its existence.
The haunting figures could be marble statues beside a Roman Bath, but seem more like victims of Pompeii caught in a moment unprepared – their imperfect bodies frozen in the final throws of life. Peaking music throbs through us like the hypnotic rhythm of the ancients; the relics break free of their casts, their likeness ascends to the heavens and are suspended above the stage where they remain as if ghosts of ancestors, as if Gods.
The opening to The Danger Ensemble’s latest production Caligula is a stunning affair and the overall design (Natalie Ryner & Benjamin Hughes) is a work of art layered in lush imagery. But this luxurious scene is just a brief moment before being submersed into the mayhem that is the trademark of The Danger Ensemble.
The non-semble performers that Director, Steven Mitchell Wright, has gathered for this play-date are exceptional: Nerida Matthaei (Phluxus2Dance), Gabriel Comerford and Lucinda Shaw (Silver Sircus). Watching their choreographed sequences is reward enough for braving the Danger.
Romulus and Remus make an appearance as an eager chorus to set us on our path – a reminder perhaps that Rome was born of scandal as they give us a quick rundown of the man and the myth.
Caligula (a recognisable Chris Becky) is serenaded by his sister / lover, Drusilla (Lucinda Shaw) who lurks behind a dark, dramatic head-dress as she seductively sings to him, of all songs, ‘Wrecking Ball’ by Miley Cyrus. Setting the tone for a performance that wildly swings between moments that move you (be that to anger or intrigue) and moments that ridicule, it illuminates ideas between the debauchery of the Romans and the devilry of the sequinned, jump-suited Club Kids of the late eighties. Blurring the line between the two, Caligula and Alig, one name is even contained with-in the other.
Some of the absurd tilts too far into silliness as does the apparent for-the-sake-of-it shock tactics which I suspect are far less shocking to today’s deviant public than the creative team gives them credit for. But then again, perhaps this whole exercise is about suggesting that we are no longer shockable, with the knowledge of the world and the sub-world at our hyperlinked fingertips. Perhaps an inexhaustible excess is all that we have left now we’ve done shock literally to death – give me more, hit me with your car, make a onesie out of my skin! This exchange between a cool Nerdia Matthaei and a Pan-like, Faunus Beckey (are they stilettos or hooves) a repartee of one-upmanship as she comes up with novel ways for him to torture her; the more extreme the suggestion, the more titillated he is.
Gabriel Comerford utterly steals the show with a performance that seems more like a cross-species possession, and can be interpreted in so many ways. It began with what looked like gratuitous nudity (behold the mankini!). Cringe swiftly turned to horror as Matthaei begins to carve up Comerfords body with red pen. All the while, the dulcet voice of Shaw guides us on the “art” of skinning a beast as if she is guiding us through a mindful mediation. Comerford’s performance is devastating and unsettling and the true shock of the night – the image is still with me and will be for some time.
At just over an hour (a perfectly respectable length for overwhelming performance art), we are visited by a bloody-syringe-haloed Jesus (Shaw) singing us out with Nick Caves ‘God is in the House’. Lucinda’s dark, moody voice depresses and leaves one wondering who, or what we are drawn to worship and why.
It’s impossible to retell the experience of Caligula for part of the magic is in the long conversations that happen afterward as you try to make sense of this whole thing – and it is a thing, somewhere between theatre, performance art, and torture.
Caligula is now showing at the Judith Wright Centre until Saturday July 12 at a very reasonable $35 a ticket. Don’t go alone however – take interesting company and be prepared to use your mind for once.