Caligula at the Kourion: postcard from Cyprus

Caligula at the Kourion: postcard from Cyprus

Watching wide-eyed in a windswept amphitheatre, set high on a Cypriot hillside, we take in Albert Camus’ absurd Caligula – in Greek, no less.

WORDS BY CHRIS ROWLANDS

Our first clue might rightly have been the fire raging on a not-so-distant hillside. This was to be no ordinary evening at the theatre.

As flames flickered atop the ridge, lighting the clear night sky with an ominous amber glow, theatre-goers queued with disorderly anticipation on the slope which led to the top of the Kourion amphitheatre.

Conversations in Greek, Italian, French and English (of several accents) punctuated the night air, as glimpses of angular, post-modern staging were stolen between posts which signalled the summit of rows of curved stone pews, metal gleaming as spotlights fired in preparation.

Wizened watchers of outdoor drama had brought cushions – something our aching behinds would rapidly envy – whilst our sole act of making ready was to bring along a slab of honey-drenched pitta bread. Delicious, no doubt, but nothing to take away the harsh hardness of the rocky benches which did for seats in the re-built crescent theatre.

As the multi-national audience filed in, and the beginning was, perhaps predictably, delayed due to a few late stragglers, eager viewers positioned themselves upon the firm, stepped seats – some leaving rows of courtesy, others cramming as close as possible in behind their fellow onlookers.

A few friends met with glee, a lady in a long, black dress bouncing with joy at the sight of an old acquaintance, standing two steps up to gain a height advantage, giggling as she did so.

Then, with no pomp or circumstance, the actors filed in; silent, stark silhouettes upon a stage constructed from metres-wide strips of wood atop metal trusses, overlaid to form a criss-cross in which the voids were filled with ivy, itself, we would later find, home to key plot-developing props.

Dark, stormy music burst forth from the speakers (deftly performed by a single musician, playing variously throughout the performance the bass guitar, violin, synthesiser and more) as a word was repeated and echoed by every onstage character. It was at this first word that our worst fears were realised.

“I think,” I whispered, “that it’s going to be in Greek.”

So began two hours of a performance powerfully delivered, on a modular set that moved and grew with the action – a mirror (in fact a TV screen equipped with a low-light camera) arose from beside the stage; tables were conjured and slotted into hidden foundations; part of the stage itself lifted into a ramp, a rail running its length permitting a pentagonal stool to slide to its base at a pivotal moment.

And, through it all, we had precisely no idea what was going on.

Caligula, if you’re not familiar with the work, is a play of surreality by its very nature – exploring the effect of death on the famously erratic, eponymous Roman emperor, who, depending on who you ask, spends most of the play seeking to bring about his own murder, by variously murdering, raping and cajoling, dishing out justice and injustice as he sees fit.

Translated and interpreted, though – however astounding the backdrop and fantastic the set (projections of the Moon sweeping slowly across nearby rocks) – we arguably had as much idea as to what was going on as the cat which blithely strolled in from stage left halfway through the first half.

As Caligula postured atop a ladder and forced his council to bow to him, and later made mandatory participation in a poetry contest (which, admittedly, we only understood once reading GCSE revision notes afterwards), though, we began to appreciate the art for art itself.

Not understanding a darn word of dialogue – except for a rendition of Que será, será – drew one to focus on far more than following the plot; though, perhaps, pivotal to actually grasping the action, being left entirely in the dark as to the meaning of the monologues and exchanges meant we were free to appreciate the actors’ delivery, their intonation, their human interactions.

It was, in fact, as if watching an absurd, nonsensical play in some conjured tongue, where it was clear that the things being said meant a very great deal to the characters – and, indeed, to most of the audience, laughing merrily as they did at moments truly, monumentally lost on us – and that, without question, was captivating.

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