Stratford Trip: Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare's more controversial works; written while his style was under the goretastic Christopher Marlowe's influence, it's a very bloody, very flawed play. In the authorship debates, Titus Andronicus is one of the first plays to be offered candidacy for a non-Shakespeare playwright.

Briefly, the play concerns two families; the Andronici, who have suffered great losses in the wars against the Goths, and the royal family of the Goths, now captured and in Rome's possession. The patriarch of the Andronici, Titus Andronicus, sacrifices one of the Goth Queen Tamora's sons. Somehow, Tamora is put in a position of power over the Andronici, and uses her new untouchability to wreak havoc on the once-glorious family.

Andronicus then retaliates, and so on until everyone is dead. In essence, this is a revenge tragedy. I love it, and was very excited to see it at the Tom Patterson stage, my very favourite stage at the Stratford Festival.

When I came into the perpetually smoky auditorium, the first thing that struck me was the stage, which had been transformed from how I remembered it. The surface of the stage was white with the Latin phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus silkscreened on in faded gold lettering. At the far downstage was an altar with candles and 23 clay figures representing each of the Andronici sons that have been killed before the play's action. It was a potent image.

I was sitting in the second row stage right. I've only ever sat on the ground level of the Patterson, and I should say that I wasn't entirely prepared for how precarious my position would be. I do wonder how many people fall over from high rows at the Patterson whilst attempting to adjust their seat, which is not affixed to the riser at all!

Upon opening my programme, I found that John Vickery, who was billed to star, would not be performing that evening. Our Titus was to be Wayne Best, who I hadn't heard of before. I was disappointed until I actually saw Mr Best perform. He was great, the right balance of sentimental and batshit insane. I had never realized how much stamina you need for the part of Titus, and the character arc is really quite complex for a play that is discredited as rudimentary. Mr Best made me believe in Titus's emotional imbalance, his precarious grasp on logic, and was clearly having a grand time.

Claire Lautier played Tamora, and was delightfully over the top. She was sexy and civilized to a fault, but every now and then she'd scream or let loose some kind of battle cry whilst unleashing a new barbarism on her hapless victims. Unlike Lady Macbeth, who must first 'unsex' herself before she can commit any kind of brutality, Tamora can accommodate her actions with her feminity, and Ms Lautier clearly played on that aspect.

To compare to the strong character of Tamora, Lavinia reads as a very weak female character, even without the tremendous losses that she suffers. Not so in this production. Amanda Lisman was impetuous and angry, even in silence. In the killing of Chiron and Demetrius (Tamora's sons, played excellently by Brendan Murray and Bruce Godfree), Lavinia tortures them before they are killed offstage, rather than letting Titus do it and collecting the blood afterwards. This was a strong and striking move.

Dion Johnstone played Aaron, one of the few characters in Shakespeare's canon to be specified as black. Aaron is also a totally unrepentant villain, along the lines of Marlowe's Barabbas. Mr Johnstone, who was brilliant as Caliban in last year's production of The Tempest, stole the show here. There is this brilliant Marlovian speech that he delivered with obvious relish. He did this with a noose around his neck. Badass.
Demetrius: Villain! Thou hast undone our mother!
Aaron: No, villain, I hath done your mother.
Ooooh, yeah.

A false note in the otherwise excellent ensemble was David Ferry as Marcus, Titus's brother. In a role taken up by Colm Feore in the 2000 film, Ferry fell rather flat. His diction was fine, but his tone was not befitting of such an intense drama, with a far too comedic bent. In hindsight this is odd, because I saw him in Richard III the next day and the weird tone that he had was completely gone.

Sean Arbuckle as Saturninus, the Caligula-like emperor who Andronicus is again and again wronged by, was a delight. He had a very childish and disturbing interpretation of the role.

The production itself was crisp and clean, almost too a fault. Director Darko Tresnjak made the decision to keep the play's setting of Ancient Rome, without any of the anachronisms that one might find in other productions. This worked very well.

What didn't work was the use of a symbolic red light for blood. There was very little gushing, spurting, or otherwise exuding of blood in this Titus, which I think lets down the piece a little. In a play with three behandings, two beheadings, a betonguing, cannibalism, and a grand total of 37 people dead at the end of the play, blood is to be expected. Even Ninagawa's use of red ribbons was more effective than the red spotlight OF DOOM.

There was also loads of borrowing from Julie Taymor's film, or it seemed like it. Maybe I'm not taking into account how very literal Shakespeare is with this play, but there seemed several moments that are not in the text but are in the movie. Of course, she introduced some great ideas that helped make this flawed piece more manageable. So maybe I'm reading too much into it.

The concluding banquet scene was super fun. It's always great to be offered little cookies that have red centres and then eat them with relish even though you know that they're made of Goth rapist. :D Oh yeah.

Next instalment: E sees Camelot.

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