Camus’ ‘Caligula’ explores the absurd notion of the human condition and the idea of what right we have to oppose tyranny, what limits can we place on them or, in fact, ourselves. When Caligula states, “Ah, my dears, at last I’ve come to see the uses of supremacy. It gives impossibilities a run…What’s the use of this amazing power of mine if I can’t have the sun set in the east? ” he may well be describing Toby Schmitz and his new play/spectacle ‘Empire: Terror on the High Seas’. I say this, not calling Schmitz’s play a great example of Theatre of the Absurd (although I think ultimately that’s what it’s trying to be, mixed with a stir of Dadaism) but because Schmitz, Emperor of the Sydney scene, has just pulled a Caligula. He has murdered theatre in front of us, firmly stuck his fingers up at his audience and told us to suck it.
I think we’re all in shock with how mind-boggling bad this spectacle (as Schmitz calls it in the program) was. My first thought was ‘You can’t be serious’ and I don’t think he is being serious. I genuinely think Schmitz is having a go, via an attempt at Theatre of the Absurd, but at what and at whose expense? At theatre? At his own reputation? At the worst he’s ever been forced to watch or partake in? At the genre in some sort of Agatha Christie parody? In his playwright’s notes he refers to the British Empire Exhibition and war poetry but skims completely over the play, leading me to think, this is not a serious attempt at writing a piece of theatre. He’s just testing the waters to see if he can get away with it. If so, it’s a pretty expensive joke on its cast, crew and audience to make a rather dated point about the human condition.
So let’s get stuck into some details about the play (spoiler alert…in fact, the whole play might fall into this category). When did I truly dismiss this spectacle as a pie in the face? It might have been when we got to the 68th murder on board the Empress of Australia circa 1925. Perhaps it was when our murderer, revealed at the end of Act One, plays with his deformed (self-harmed) penis as he strangles yet another victim. Could it have been when Mr Richard Civil-Lowe Cavendish had his intestines tied to a rope, with a knife at the other end, so he had to gut himself in order to free himself or kill our serial killer. Maybe it was the international cast of characters with bad accents; the twee allusions to homosexuality; the sinking of the ship so the murderer can get away as the perfectly timed bomb goes off; the chemical-weapons-infected-steward, John Rowling, jumping overboard; the characters who almost never spoke and when they did, we still don’t know why they did; the detective grabbing the conveniently placed broom, only seconds before moved into position, to unlock his handcuffs that he put himself in; the ghost of the singer Poppy Mitchell rising up to sing and be killed all over again or the voice overs from the lighting box at the end? Each and all of the above.
But really, it was probably in its opening minutes I knew the play had hit an iceberg as Mr Frey read us a bit of dadaist poetry and the cast of thousands walked out from the audience to stand in front of us in the spotlight with a pleading look of mercy in their eyes. ‘Empire’ was a hot mess and its audience were left in stunned silence over the atrocity in front of them (not the murder, the actual play). Even at the end of it, we still are left unsure as to the reason that our killer was doing it all in the first place. If you ever wanted an example of how intention and effect can be completely unrelated, look no further. I kept waiting, ala ‘The Producers’ and ‘Hitler in Springtime’, for someone to yell out “It’s a comedy”. No-one did.
I cannot express to you enough just how surprisingly bad this play was and I don’t know that director Leland Kean or his cast could fix it. It’s straight out melodrama with a nod to the Absurd with a few witty lines but lacks control of the form and has misread its target audience. It felt like one of those dodgy amateur high school shows with an element of the risqué. I don’t even feel like there’s much point criticising the acting or direction because I think they know that ship sunk before it even sailed. This is the Rocksurfers’ Titanic.
And I love a bit of Schmitz. I’m gutted at what I just sat through. I don’t think I’ve ever given him a bad review but Emperor ‘Caligula’ Schmitz has stuck the knife in, ripped out the baby and has left us all gaping at the carnage.
Heaven have mercy.