Marina Davydova

... Generally speaking, Nekrošius' creations are best viewed at least six months after they open. Time and time again I've watched a complex agglomeration of metaphors which, however impressive, amounted to little more than chaos at the premiere, eventually fall together into an orderly universe. An example was The Cherry Orchard, the eminent director's first production with Russian actors and his first meeting with Yevgeny Mironov, who was his brilliant Lopakhin. At first glance heavy-handed and overly long, the show soon acquired fluency, and its system of images became streamlined and lucid.

But his Caligula is a special case. Nekrošius' extraordinary metaphors, which form the basis of his theatrical aesthetic, here take on a rather subservient role. At times it seems that the maestro thinks them up out of habit, incidental as they are to Albert Camus' centripetal play and to Nekrošius' own hyperafferent vision. The fact is that, despite a large cast, the director essentially turns Caligula into a one-man show. The action in this production not only revolves entirely around the protagonist, but often appears to be a mere projection of Caligula's dreams and nightmarish fantasies.

Camus wrote Caligula in 1944, and it was easy to assume that the political reality of the age inspired the story of a mad and cruel emperor with antidictatorial pathos. And in fact, the play's famous French staging of 1945, with Gérard Philipe in the title role, was perceived by audiences as antifascist, although the author, of course, intended no such thing. For Camus, the hecatombs of the 20th century were only a reminder of the ordinary horror of death, which awaits at every turn. Beyond the social insanity he glimpsed the absurdity of life as such, a monstrous order which condemns all men to nonexistence and to the loss of what they hold dear. Camus' Caligula hoped to defeat the absurd with the absurd, to conquer the fear of death by making death a routine social ritual, to tame irrational fate by taking on the role of Destiny. He wanted to oppose the ruthless order of things with the absolute freedom of human will. And so a tyrant was born.

If truth be told, the romantic existentialism of Camus, who'd made a mass murderer and rapist the most delicate and vulnerable character of his play, did not convince the 20th century. The vision of Hannah Arendt, who pointed to the ordinary nature of evil, proved to be much more relevant: far from philosophizing romantics, 20th-century tyrants were, for the most part, common punks with a philistine outlook. But Nekrošius dismisses the question of relevance by placing the play's action wholly outside the social context.

While making his tyrant a philosopher, Camus had him remain an emperor, and so his Caligula conducted his experiment while on the top rung of the social ladder. Nekrošius, in effect, deprives the hero of his august rank. One would be hard-pressed to call the show's setting an imperial palace. It's simply a place on earth – a fence, a doghouse, a bunch of corrugated roofing. Perhaps there was a time when Roman structures stood here, but they've long since blended into the dreary scenery. And its inhabitants are anything but patrician: they're dressed like wandering minstrels, peasants, the shelter denizens of Gorky's Lower Depths, but not like men of state. You can picture the bunch of them flying pigeons with their buddy Caligula just a few days back, but since his adored sister Drusilla died he hasn't been himself...

When Mironov first enters, his eyes are the eyes of Prince Myshkin. Such a hero is not capable of a social experiment; he can only experiment with himself. It is himself, not the world, he's sorting things out with. It's his own fear of death he strives to overcome by destroying all his connections with the world, by inwardly burying all that he holds dear, by conquering in himself all that is "human, all too human". But the human in him proves stronger than the urge for the impossible. This Caligula fails to become free, for he fails to become inhuman. And Mironov's portrayal of the struggle between his hero's free will and his earthly attachments is nothing short of formidable.

What the supporting actors chiefly tend to represent in other productions of the play are dread, distress and anxious flattery: the patricians fear death, while the emperor has surmounted that fear. But it's impossible to fear this Caligula – one can only love him, sympathize with him, or try to figure him out. Nearly every character uses him as a mirror: Helicon (Igor Gordin), his eternally devoted servant; Cherea (Aleksei Devotchenko), his leading adversary; the poet Scipio (Yevgeny Tkachuk), his alter ego, who has one of the show's most beautiful scenes, reciting a poem with Caligula.

The brutality, the executions, the destruction of those he loves seem to be taking place entirely in the hero's feverish imagination. Certainly every character he sends off to his death continues to participate in the action as if nothing has happened. Even the rape of Mucius' wife, which in the play the emperor commits in front of the husband, happens here only in Caligula's mind – yet still reveals Mucius as a coward. Caligula's self-experimentation serves to expose all others for what they are, forcing them to look inside themselves and see an abyss of iniquity.

Caligula's last scene with Caesonia (Maria Mironova) – his wife, his slave, his doom – is not the murder described in the play. It is essentially a double suicide. He doesn't strangle her as indicated but only lays his head on her throat, and her death throes are indistinguishable from the shudders of orgasm. Nor is Caligula murdered in this show: instead he hurls himself into an archway where the other characters stand shaking shards of a mirror – the symbol of a fleeting life which slips away like a reflection.

Still, Caligula is the first work by Nekrošius from which I take away more than the metaphors. The ashes that stand for the dust men turn into; the paper legs dressed in men's sox, which are just as vulnerable here as human flesh; Caligula's high jumps into the air, as if trying to defeat gravity and reach the moon; that moon personified in Drusilla curled up into a ball, whom Helicon carries in in the final scene and who appears throughout the play as a silent vision reminiscent of the mad Ophelia – these and other brainchildren of the director are interesting to watch, but somehow unnecessary here.

What will stay with me are Yevgeny Mironov's eyes just before the end – the desperate eyes of a man unable to resign himself to the fact that life ends, and capable of cruelty only to himself. Here more than ever, the theater of Nekrošius is not metaphorical but psychological: never before has he examined so closely the inner world of a man, the minutest stirrings of his soul. Perhaps this is because he has never worked with an artist able to reveal that world with such fierce, unbearably heartbreaking depth.

[Translated by Vlada Chernomordik for the Yevgeny Mironov Official Website]