Party pies were off the menu on opening night of Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.
They would have been hard to swallow. Shakespeare’s ghastly tragedy, which climaxes in an infamous culinary revenge, does tend to rob an audience of its appetite for meaty snacks.
Seldom performed until the latter years of the 20th century, Titus is a play with a patchy reputation. You’ll have probably heard about its grisly violence even if you’ve never seen it.
It’s also regarded as an inferior tragedy in the Shakespearian canon, one whose authorship is unclear. The British critic Kenneth Tynan – for whom Titus became something of a running joke – wrote it off as “a series of operations which only a surgeon could describe as a memorable evening in the theatre.”
Yet this visually bold production, directed by Adena Jacobs and designed by Eugyeene Teh, manages to elevate one’s view of the play considerably by paring back the script, replacing its splashy shocks with more cryptic images, and toning down the gallows humour that marked Bell Shakespeare’s previous foray into the story (Heiner Müller’s adaptation Anatomy Titus, Fall of Rome, staged in 2008).
As a result, this Titus feels more like Greek tragedy than Elizabethan blood-and-guts.
The violence is there – it’s unavoidable – but it is made surreal. Rather than being repelled by the events of Titus, we are drawn in. Watching the story unfold is like being immersed in a warm bath of horror.
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The plot is relatively straightforward if occasionally hard to follow: Roman general Titus (played by the remarkable Jane Montgomery Griffiths), recently returned from a victorious campaign and overcome by hubris and desire for revenge, insists the sons of the captive Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Melita Jurisic), must be dismembered and burned upon the funeral pyre of the children Titus lost in battle.
In the wake of Titus’s victory, political manoeuvring results in the shock promotion of Tamora to Empress of Rome by the scheming Emperor Saturninus (Daniel Schlusser), who relishes taking down Titus, a favourite of the mob.
Now Tamora and her slave/lover Aaron (Tariro Mavondo) are in a position to exact revenge on Titus via his beloved daughter Lavinia (Jayna Patel), who is horribly raped and mutilated by Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, a crime prompting that most horrifying of stage directions: Enter Demetrius and Chiron, with Lavinia ravished; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out.
Chiron (Grace Truman) and Demetrius (Tony Ray Ray), in turn, will be the main dish in a revenge banquet served piping hot by an unhinged Titus.
Jacobs segments the play into eight nightmarish scenes punctuated by the dropping of a half curtain of distinctly placental texture. Each scene feels like a play-within-a-play. The horrors of the assault on Lavinia are conjured in a disturbing pantomime with the masked assailants captured on video as they trap her in a shed. A loop of massively magnified endoscope footage serves as a backdrop in the next scene. In another, we see the crazed Titus bowling over child-sized mannequins with a severed head.
The storytelling becomes cloudy sometimes and the pace is sometimes funereal, but the cumulative impact of Jacobs’ vision is considerable.
It’s very much an ensemble effort led by Griffiths, whose Titus makes this production coherent and riveting. Jurisic’s haunted Tamora is a powerful presence despite the heavy cuts applied to the part. Schlusser delivers a crisply enunciated and suitably depraved Saturninus.
Josh Price performs strongly as Titus’ brother Marcus, and in a show of memorable images, Catherine Van-Davies’ extraordinary front-of-curtain burlesque (she plays the Clown) may be the most confronting. Max Lyandvert’s score is outstanding.
I’m not convinced Titus has much to say to us now, beyond reminding us that no matter how secure we think our gilded age, the descent into barbarism is a short one. But this is a brave show for Bell Shakespeare, arguably the most experimental production it has mounted in its three decades. For that reason alone it’s worth experiencing. All credit to the company for having the guts to serve it up.