Friday, 18 October 2013

Theatre review: Titus Andronicus (Hiraeth / Arcola)

Obscure Shakespeares are like buses, you wait ages for one and then two come at once. From my first trip to a Shakespeare play in 1989 it took me 24 years to add Titus Andronicus to my collection, but only three months after that the second production comes along. The best thing is, in dealing with a notoriously problematic play two different directors have used completely different approaches to its tonal difficulties. Titus Andronicus is effectively Elizabethan torture porn - with non-stop bloodshed and sexual violence, a self-inflicted amputation straight out of Saw, and a notorious LOLcannibalism! finale, its horror can tip over into unintentional comedy. One way to solve this is to embrace the play's extremes like Michael Fentiman did in Stratford this summer. But another approach is to couch the horror in something we still find genuinely disturbing, and that's Zoé Ford's take at the Arcola.

This is a production that doesn't skimp on the gore but there may be more spit than blood on the stage because Ford sets the action in the 1980s, the Romans transformed into National Front-supporting skinheads, while their enemies the Goths get a rather literal makeover complete with guyliner. Titus (David Vaughan Knight) makes an enemy of the Goth queen at just the wrong time, as she surprisingly becomes Empress of Rome and the pair begin a tit-for-tat revenge campaign of bloodshed against each other's families.


With a soundtrack of 1980s pop, the London skinheads are pitted against the Irish Goths led by Rosalind Blessed's Tamora. Full disclosure, I went to university with Roz and like her, so can't exactly offer an unbiased critique of her performance, you'll just have to take my word for it that she's good in this. I reckon I can be impartial about her hairstyle though: I'm not sure how the environmentally-friendly Arcola feels about the amount of hairspray she must be getting through - back-combing that would make Bonnie Tyler blush!


The setting gives just that little bit of distance but the gang violence (brutally choreographed by Martyn August,) topped off with the endless spitting that adds insult to injury, feels uncomfortably believable, the horror managing not to tip over into comedy until the production is good and ready: Once Titus himself can only laugh at his family's destruction the hysteria is embraced a bit more - I did like Blessed's Tamora trying and failing not to laugh when her husband stumbles across insulting graffiti about him.


With any high concept take on Shakespeare the new setting will only work so far. Setting the action among the leaders of racist party is inspired in terms of the party leader's wife having an affair with Aaron (Stanley J Browne,) although if anything the fact that Aaron is hardly Shakespeare's most sympathetic portrayal of a black man feels even dodgier in this context. And putting almost every character into the National Front makes it hard for the audience to find the tiny shred of sympathy that can be there: Ryan Cloud's Bassianus and Maya Thomas' Lavinia have a convincing chemistry that makes you want to like them, but the fact that they're both covered in racist tattoos means it's hard to be too upset about their terrible fates. Liam Mulvey's got a particularly hard job with Marcus Andronicus, the resigned, wise old voice of reason not gelling with the fact that he too chose to shave his head and wear red braces.


But Ford's production succeeds more often than it fails, and indeed succeeds more than it has any right to - the cheekily sexy swagger of Adam Lawrence and James Clifford's Chiron and Demetrius shouldn't be able to coexist with their fondness for sexual violence but somehow it does. This is nasty stuff, in a good way - as opposed to the sticky blood-and-phlegm-covered stage floor at the end, which is just nasty.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare is booking until the 26th of October at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

2 comments:

  1. I disagree with you that it is hard to feel sympathy for the characters on the basis of their allegiances. By referencing This is England the production gave access to a more nuanced view of what being a skinhead was about; not just all that oi oi oi violence and racism. One of the gang in the movie, after all, is black.

    Lavinia isn't someone I much care for in the beginning and usually what happens to her feels more like something that pushes on the plot, rather than a terrible and horrifying act done specifically to her. By staging the rape on stage, especially after the comic posturing dance by the brothers I felt that this particular version made her much more real and in doing to, made it easier to pity Titus and his family than any other version I have ever seen.

    I honestly don't think it matters one jot if Aaron is played as a sharp suited black guy with a beautiful accent. It's effective. Not being able to put away discomfort at seeing a bad black character does the production a disservice, Stanley J Browne's performance of a proper villain was, I felt, hugely impressive and amidst all the blood and gore, enjoyable.

    I really liked this production. My main beef was with the verse, sometimes I really could not understand what was being said. I think it is no coincidence that the easiest person to understand was Aaron as he has all the best lines.

    What was being shown, on the other hand, was challenging and rewarding. I'd pay to see it again.

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    1. I disagree with you that it is hard to feel sympathy for the characters on the basis of their allegiances. By referencing This is England the production gave access to a more nuanced view of what being a skinhead was about; not just all that oi oi oi violence and racism. One of the gang in the movie, after all, is black.

      I like the use of film or other cultural references to help create a production's identity, but it can only be taken so far - I've seen This Is England but you shouldn't have to have seen it to get the nuances of the production. Taken in isolation, as I try to do with shows, this is Shakespeare's most gratuitously violent story set among a racist political party and its actively violent supporters. If I'm to feel any sympathy it has to come from within the production and, to the actors' credit, sometimes I came close to it.

      I honestly don't think it matters one jot if Aaron is played as a sharp suited black guy with a beautiful accent. It's effective. Not being able to put away discomfort at seeing a bad black character does the production a disservice, Stanley J Browne's performance of a proper villain was, I felt, hugely impressive and amidst all the blood and gore, enjoyable.

      Aaron is a great villain role, but he's a great villain written in the 1590s, and as such doesn't just happen to be black, his colour is explicitly referred to in relation to his villainy. In a different context this can be just taken for what it is, but when he becomes the sole black face among white racists that's not an option. That's not necessarily a criticism - by its very nature, any high-concept production will have elements that don't quite fit its new home, and by contrast the implications of Tamora having a black baby are only made greater by this staging.

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