This production featured incredible performances. By the dinner scene, Benoît McGuinnes had become a tour de force, and the other actors stayed with him straight through to the end. Over and over, I was caught off guard by natural effortless readings of lines that somehow struck me as unexpected or revealing. It was a great experience.
That said, I’ve never seen a show in which I hated the set more or felt more strongly that it was purposefully aggressive toward the audience.
The stage was empty except for a closed, black box that was raised up on row after row of construction jacks. This box was enormous: it was the same width and depth as the stage and it was high enough to take up half the available vertical space. As a result, it served as a roof over the actors’ heads throughout. There were only two places for action to be performed: at the very front of the stage (the only place where everyone was out from under the box) or further back, under the box. In the latter case, the actors were screened from the view of anyone not on the ground level, and for people in the balconies, watching the play often meant watching actors’ feet and hips.
So why was the box there? It’s tough to say because over the course of the entire production it is used in only two ways, both of them extremely brief. First, the box’s front wall opened during the first and last minutes of the play offering a brightly lit and blindingly white space where Caligula acted out his anguish and despair in private. The first of these moments was shocking and exciting. As it happened I thought it was effective. By the final moments, I’d changed my mind.
The second use of the box was more fragmentary. At three or four points during the performance, small panels opened in its front walls to reveal the dead Drusilla watching the action of the play silently from above. These moments were disconnected, distracting and largely without point. If I were to be less generous, I’d call them sentimental.
Neither of these two uses of the box—not even the first, which I liked initially—offers anything substantial enough to off-set the fact that it makes the actors act where most of their audience can’t really see them. As a result, the box feels hostile and arbitrary, a sense of things that makes me wonder why it was there at all.
One thought: the open box has proportions resembling those of a cinemascope frame; the panels opening onto Drusilla resembled video screens; the action only proceeds clearly when confined to the narrow (i.e. flat) space of the front of the stage. Are these hints that this stage is operating in relation to the cinema screen? It it inviting a consideration of mediation?
If so, the idea is too undeveloped to do any work.