Titus Andronicus was an absolute joy for anyone who likes their Shakespeare shaken up, electro-shocked à la Frankenstein – something rather beautiful and terrible jolted into vivid life, created painstakingly carefully out of pieces that centuries of critics and theatre directors have left for dead.
Smooth Faced Gentlemen demonstrated superlative understanding of the language, a well-oiled elegance of staging and interaction, original, intelligent and gregarious humour – all delivered with a slick energy, a deeply professional confidence and array of talent.
It’s a stunningly, horrifically violent story which aspires to virtually Sadean extremes of gore, with rape, mutilation and cannibalism flavouring the relentless murder, and this adaptation went all-out with red paint – the ingenious touch of using paintbrushes as weapons, in a set made up of decorators’ ladders and white drapes, working absolutely perfectly.
The horror became viscerally visual without crossing the line into the ridiculous. That was really the cleverest part of this adaptation: the production wrought the violence back from the brink of ridicule, even while playing with that line – the jokey wordplay about hands and pies always, somehow, hitting the spot.
With beautiful timing, the cast shifted the tone from horror to comedy to tragedy to slapstick: never was the audience in doubt as to our reaction, never did we laugh at the wrong moment or feel tension inappropriately broken. Tamora’s chilling “I’ll find a day to massacre them all” was a highlight.
The cast without exception were charismatic and confident enough, on stage, to assess and wield their audience – a highly impressive quality in such a young troupe. And what’s more, not a single cast member ever had a break.
Backstage was on stage, with three screens forming a moveable box, a theatre-within-a-theatre, behind and around which were the wings, around which the actors waited, listened, even loitered, and positioned themselves ready for their cue.
The sense of inexorable dynamism and drama was almost unbearably heightened by this impression that there was no letup; no chance for the pace to slow. We were committed to the journey, to whatever depths of darkness it would take us.
Scholars have questioned whether or not Shakespeare wrote the play, but throughout this interpretation there was a very Shakespearean feel to its warp and weft: remorselessly building menace, a careful dramatic rhythm, familiar dark, dark humour, delicious cruelty, and a brutally nasty turn of comedic horror that strongly whiffs of the Bard.
Titus Andronicus himself was an embryonic King Lear, with themes of revenge, age, parenthood and insanity being prepared here, ready to take shape in more sophisticated form when that masterpiece was written, a decade later. There were perhaps shades of Lady Macbeth in Tamora’s force. It was not impossible to picture the later plays of genius evolving from things presented here.
The only aspect of the play I have failed so far to touch on is that by which it defines itself; that which had erstwhile threatened to be a gimmick; the all-female cast.Among various fascinating effects this had, the absence of men from the cast removed our own preoccupations of sexual politics from the equation, offering an environment of heightened awareness of how the human drama works outside of our distracting pre-structured gender framework. Placed onto a plane of physical equality, interesting character-play is highlighted – such as Tamora’s developing motivation, while Titus gradually undermines himself. And Tamora’s condemnation of Lavinia to horrific sexual violence and death at the hands of her sons, the fact that one woman can do this to another, is pulled into stark relief. The fact that the cast were women amongst women enabled some of the humour to be wonderfully complicit; an enormous sense of knowing wit shared with the audience, in on the joke.
I’ve rarely felt so spontaneously enthused during a Shakespeare production and rarely so gratified to have attended such a clever production. I’d place any Shakespeare play into their hands and trust that the result would be compelling, hilarious and fascinating. Here’s hoping that the amazing amounts of work that have gone into this Titus will afford it some more audiences this year before the end of its run.
Review originally published on DigYorkshire in October 2013.