Titus Andronicus. For many, it’s the I Spit on Your Grave of Shakespearian drama, a graphically and grotesquely violent play best avoided.
Written some time between 1588 and 1593, scholars consider Titus Andronicus atypical of the Bard’s work at best. Some assert it was not written by Shakespeare at all. Others say it was at least co-authored (by the London dramatist and poet George Peele) and, either way, should be regarded as juvenilia, the work of a playwright looking to make a splash.
Undeterred by its reputation, Bell Shakespeare is about to unleash a new production of this seldom-seen tragedy, directed by Adena Jacobs, who says she had concerns when Peter Evans, Bell’s artistic director, first approached her with the offer.
“I had to decide whether I could stomach it,” Jacobs says. “It’s a huge challenge on a lot of levels. But it’s also the kind of content that’s been floating around in my head for some time and it links to other projects I’ve done.”
“Not just about splatter”
Set in the latter years of the Roman Empire, Titus Andronicus tells the fictional story of Titus, a Roman general enmeshed in a grim cycle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths.
Shakespeare – if it is his work – was nothing if not inventive when it comes to depicting the depths human beings can dive to.
“Yeah, it’s hardcore,” Jacobs says. “Not since I directed a production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed have I had to deal with such difficult material.”
Jacobs is examining the story through a queer feminist lens and the prism of motherhood (she became a parent this year). Don’t come expecting a stage awash with gore, she says, but do prepare to be confronted.
“From the start, Pete and I agreed that the play is not just about the splatter, or about shocking the audience in an expected way,” Jacobs says. “I’m not interested in seeing the bodies of women victimised on stage, or the bodies of people of colour or young people or queer people brutalised. I don’t think anyone is interested in that anymore.
“And yet, at the same time, those images are at the centre of the text and are what kept me up at night: the image of Lavinia with her tongue cut out and her hands cut off; the image of a mother eating her own children in a pie.”
Such images present “directorial problems,” Jacobs says. “So the question for me became, is it possible to re-imagine the play to get beyond something that is just re-enacting and displaying violence on stage?
“It’s important to me to say more than just, look, there’s terrible male violence and it’s ongoing and it’s a cycle and this is what it looks like. We know that. For me, it’s about finding other layers and thinking about why these figures commit violence.”
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Jacobs describes her approach as one that “X-rays” the play. “I want to get into the psyche that underlies the play as a whole rather than just its individual acts of violence,” she says.
“I began by thinking of the play as a series of chapters, eight discrete nightmares. In each chapter, we investigate a particular moment of violence, or the crisis occurring for that character and the impact of the violence that has been written on the body of that character.
“It enables us to take a step back and create something which is either more meditative or goes deeper into those moments. It’s quite allegorical and otherworldly sometimes, but I hope it resonates with the audience in a very truthful and immediate way.”
A woman’s voice
Titus Andronicus is Jacobs’ first foray into Shakespeare and also her Bell Shakespeare debut. She’s Melbourne-based but Sydney audiences have experienced several of her productions, including The Howling Girls (Sydney Chamber Opera), The Wizard of Oz (Belvoir) and Melbourne company Fraught Outfit’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. She recently directed a staging of Salome for the English National Opera.
How does Titus fit into her body of work – if at all?
“The central image of the play, of a woman with her tongue cut out, who’s been muted, is an idea or a theme that’s run throughout so much of my work in different ways,” Jacobs says. “I find myself attracted – sometimes unknowingly – to these to these stories about the voicing and de-voicing of women.”
Interestingly, Jacobs notes, she has touched on Titus Andronicus before. “I did a production called On the Bodily Education of Young Girls for the NEON Festival [in 2013] and the girls actually performed a pantomime of Titus Andronicus in it. So it feels like I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”
A feminist audience
Jacobs has cast the play with women in the three major roles: Jane Montgomery Griffiths is Titus, Melita Jurisic is Tamora and Tarira Mavondo is her slave Aaron.
“Jane is amazing,” Jacobs says. “She’s a classically trained performer but she’s also an experimental feminist artist. She can wear both hats, which is very rare. She has the skill to speak this incredible text, and a wealth of knowledge about the language but she’s also interested in creating something which is bold, and which speaks to a contemporary audience, to a feminist audience.”
Casting women reframes the piece as a work about mothers and children, Jacobs says. “It feels very central to the story. Suddenly you are thinking about the transference of violence from parent to child and the transference of trauma throughout history in a different way – through the lens of three mothers.
“I guess I’m asking, what if mothers wrote those stories and what would a cycle of violence look like through the prism of a mother? What if mothers dreamt up this show rather than having it placed upon them?”
Titus Andronicus plays at the Sydney Opera House, August 27-September 27