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In Conversation with Robert Johnson

"I've never found a play so formally or intellectually engrossing." Artistic director of Burning House, Robert Johnson, provides an in-depth insight into his latest production of 'Caligula' (13-23 July) by Albert Camus - a play bursting with poetry, violence, sadness and love.

Q: Tell us about your first encounter with the story about Caligula. Do you remember your initial response?

A: I had been familiar with as a historical figure for a very long time, but I first encountered the Camus' play on the train to another rehearsal - I had just graduated from my undergrad and was trying to read as many plays as possible. The first primal response was one of overwhelming attraction - this man had such a voracious lust for life and was so fundamentally brave and resolute in how he pursued it. It's been an attraction that has lasted ever since. Caligula throws down a very difficult challenge to those he meets, insisting that we continually strive to reach a fully-realised understanding of ourselves and never shirk from the duty of living. He is, quite simply, an awe-inspiring figure. Encountering such a huge spirit was something I could not forget - Caligula was one of the shows I debated opening my company with in 2016. He's been sitting away at the bottom of my soul for a very long time, and it's both exhilarating and somewhat terrifying to let him out.

Q: What inspired you to direct this play?

A: The biggest inspiration for the play has really been Caligula's spirit and the challenge Camus' set forth in writing the play. 'Always go too far, because that's where you'll find the truth', says Camus. So that's been our dictum - really pushing ourselves to find the most tender, heartfelt, cruel, horrific or passionate way of telling the story. Parents are christened in their dead son's ashes. A goddess gets born on stage. A man spends two hours trying to summon the ghost of his dead sister/lover. At the heart of it all has been a desire to conduct ourselves with enough size and strength to look Caligula in the eye and not look away.

Aesthetically, we've had a few key touchstones. The world of Midsommar and Beltane festivity has been a big driver, as has the work of post-war artists like Beksinski and Bacon. The room is a weird contradiction of ash black and riotous colour. Botticelli and di Vinci has waltzed in and out of our rehearsal rooms. And time and time again (oddly) we've come back to Hitler and Christ - each the ultimate judge, in their own way. Camus' Caligula is the strange lovechild of Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler, and he grew up watching RuPaul's Drag Race and Hannibal.

Q: The show features an epic cast of 12 performers. What have been the most enjoyable part about working with such a large cast?

A: Working with large casts is somewhat of a passion of mine. More than anything it allows an audience to see a community on stage in a very tangible way. There's all sorts of reasons why, but we just don't see enough ensemble plays in the independent theatre scene - particularly tragedy. A fantastic definition of classical tragedy I've come across is from Romeo Castellucci: 'Tragedy is the exhibition of the hero's corpse to the polis.' This cast allows us to see a village worth of response to the trails Caligula put Rome through on his journey of self-discovery, and it creates for such an incredibly high-resolution exploration of the plays themes in such a varied way. It's a treat that audiences just don't get enough of, so I'd highly encourage anyone to come along and see the Burning House ensemble navigate their way through the dangerous, bloody world of Caligula's Rome.

There's also a craft element that I find delightful - there's a delight in the sheer skill of crafting stage pictures that tell a story pictographically when you have that many people. And their own skill is part of it too - I'm very luck to work with an extremely dedicated group of artists. The play is frequently challenging for everyone involved - every character has to deal with the threat of persistent murder, abuse and humilitation, and at times it can be a lonely, confronting place. But we can all recognise how the script is making us stronger, making us feel more intensely. To have so many noble travelling companions as we journey into the abyss has been a true joy.

Q: Can you give us a hint of some of the songs that will be sung by Caligula, the goddess of Love?

A: God forbid anyone speak for Caligula. That is his province alone. I do hear that he feels the script does not allow the audience to see his fun side, so he might be working on something special to show them...

Q: If you could invite anyone to see Caligula, who would it be?

A: Albert Camus, Jesus Christ and Caligula himself. I've never found a play so formally or intellectually engrossing. I've done plays before where the spirit of the protagonist is strong enough and articulate enough to reach out across the page and strengthen my soul in a more or less permanent way. But nothing quite like this. Camus has done such a masterful, masterful job of marrying theme, philosophy and story into such an exciting and challenging work. I have never more intensely wanted to talk to a writer I've worked with who is already dead, and I've been lucky enough to count Shakespeare and Sophocles as frequent travelling companions. I want Christ there because of how he lurks inside the play and the weird mirrors between him and Caligula, and because I think he would be far more of a radical than we believe him to be. Of course he'd have some deeply fascinating, contrarian insight into the play. And I want Caligula to see it. I know he has a rap sheet longer than the play itself, but I can't help but be deeply fascinated by him. His life was consistently scarred by trauma. He lost so many members of his family and lived most of his adult life under constant fear of death. In between the pressing cruelty, the play paints a heartbreaking portrait of a young man who is terribly, terribly alone and upset, with no mother or father to guide him. He spent his life having to hide from people, and when he didn't have to hide anymore no one could understand him. I'm sure he'd spit in my face (or worse) but I would love to show him the play I've made (both about and for him), and the lessons I've learned. He was millenia ahead of his time. And he's only in town for two weeks, so see him while you can. CALIGULA by Albert Camus 13 - 23 July BOOK TICKETS


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