That scene had an extra dimension of meaning on the island, says Chavez. “Caligula doesn’t let anyone talk, he cuts them off, so in Cuba, where there is no freedom of speech, people got all excited,” he says.
Scipio’s departure has a poignant implication for a country that has seen generations of its people go into exile. “In Cuba if you say someone is leaving, they’re leaving forever,” Chavez says. “They cannot come back.”
Staging and costumes underline the contemporary connections. At one point actors march waving red flags and chanting Caligula’s name. Helikon wears tall black boots and a braid-encrusted uniform. One of Cuba’s leading actors, Broselianda Hernandez, plays Scipio, the male poet who inflames Caligula’s desire — a gender-bending twist that adds to the disorientation of Caligula’s world.
By telling the story of an insular society torn apart by the crazed exercise of absolute power, Caligula held up a mirror to Cuba that showed citizens chafing at the island’s system that they were neither crazy nor alone.
“In a society where people cannot talk freely about what is happening and surrounding them, when they watch a play that tells them about their reality in a non-obvious way, through the art — people went crazy,” Chavez says.
And yet Diaz insists that Caligula’s meaning extends far beyond Cuba.
“The story has points of connection with all the eras of humanity,” he says. “It goes through all the ways of power in the history of humanity.
“It would be very reductive, to think of ourselves and nothing else. … We want to amplify the reality that sometimes power is not used well.”
Chavez agrees with his former colleague.
“Carlos Diaz always said that if you reduced Camus’ play to the Cuban situation you reduce the play,” he says. “There are many readings. And people will draw their own conclusions.”