Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first attempt at tragedy used to be often considered a crude dramaturgical effort. It was rescued from obscurity, only in the 20th century, after the atrocities of the two World Wars and the modern totalitarian regimes. As a result, one of the most violent of Shakespeare’s plays became a mouth-piece for political theatre. In 1967 Douglas Seale directed an extremely graphic and realistic production at the Centre Stage in Baltimore set in the 1940s, which alluded to Jewish concentration camps, the infamous Nuremberg Rallies and the tragic Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, while Qiping Xu’s 1986 production in China drew sharp political parallels to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and the infamous Red Guards.
Hiraeth Artistic Productions, with their self-proclaimed Shane Meadows-esque, ‘This is England’ version of Titus Andronicus, do not offer a topical adaptation of the play. It is certainly not concerned with the deep social divides that were depicted so meaningfully and heartbreakingly in Meadows’s film. Instead the shabby industrial setting (a pile of bricks, metal mesh fencing, wooden pallets) and the skinhead paraphernalia (a couple of forlorn English flags, the colours of which match the white of the actors’ T-shirts and the red of their suspenders) are only a costume: a clever way to make the play more familiar to the modern audience.
In fact, Titus Andronicus under the direction of Zoe Ford is a study on violence and impenetrable passions that drive people to despicable acts. The young director in a remarkable unflinching manner shows that in watching Titus Andronicus we come to understand perhaps best, the nature of Shakespeare’s genius in portraying the instinctive puerile workings of a cruel mind. Indeed, the visceral and extraordinarily physical performances given by the ensemble depicting feuding English and Irish bands, of Roman skinheads and Goth punks, are so realistic that they make the show uncomfortable to watch.
The liberties that Ford took with Shakespeare’s text make sense throughout the show. The performance starts with a violent murder of Alarbus, Titus’s son, by Tamora’s Irish gang which triggers a subsequent vendetta. The changes however do not go far enough and seem almost cosmetic. All characters lead a modern lifestyle including beer binge drinking, throwing barbeque parties and even carrying a child in a portable car seat. The actors also speak with strong regional accents (I particularly like the Caribbean identity of Aaron) and swear heavily (including Lavinia).
The problem is that some actors are not able to deliver their lines clearly, with a necessary impact and poignancy. And it is the main characters’ lines that fall flat, this includes David Vaughn Knight’s Titus, Rosalind Blessed’s Tamora and Pip Gladwin’s Saturninus. It is the youngest cast that really impresses, for example, the frightening, pumped-up Demetrius and Chiron (superbly audacious and grotesque but also truly terrifying James Clifford and Adam Lawrence), and Maya Thomas as a spiky and passionate Lavinia.
Indeed, in Ford’s adaptation Lavinia is not just an accessory to the main plot. Instead she is the male characters’ equal: an equal both in violence and passion. Ford follows into the footsteps of other female theatre directors who found in Titus Andronicus a language which became a tool for a critique of patriarchal relations and its abuses, most of all, through on-stage depiction of violence against women and its realistic consequences. The rape of Titus’s daughter is the most gruelling moment of the play and I cannot imagine now a better or stronger performance than Maya Thomas’s brave depiction of Lavinia’s tragedy. What is more important, she manages convincingly to go on showing the effects of rape on a woman’s life: anger, pain, depression.
One of the best elements of the staging is the 1980’s music which strengthens the impact of some scenes and adds a layer of the grotesque that makes it a bit easier to stomach the violence shown on the stage. Demetrius and Chiron attack Lavinia to the beat of Human League’s Don’t You Want Me while the final carnage, where almost everybody dies, ends with Madness’s anthem Our House.
Overall, Hiraeth Artistic Productions’ staging of Titus Andronicus is one of the best one I have seen in many years of my theatregoing. I only wish that Ford was braver with Shakespeare’s text and made it more contemporary because it would suit her actors better and would make the play more lucid to the modern audiences.