Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ is a tough task for any theatre troupe to take on. Written at a time when theatrical gore was extremely fashionable, many now criticise the play for its gratuitous violence and slightly one-dimensional plotline. However, ‘Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s all-female production is fast-paced and engaging, managing to turn a potentially monotonous ‘gore-fest’ into an uncomfortable tragedy about familial revenge.
In the opening scene, a disconcertingly clinical set of white canvases looks onto the audience and loud music blasts while six girls in skinny jeans, leather jackets and braces fight aggressively. My initial reaction was that this production was set in the modern era, a quasi-Ralph Fiennes’ ‘Coriolanus’, but the set and costumes were purely for utility; a clever way to create different spaces and characters, for example when cast members were playing Goths they wore leather jackets or cloaks. ‘Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s performances at Edinburgh are certainly evident here. The direction screams versatility and intimate setting, but this could perhaps have been adapted slightly for larger theatres, as at times the audience’s view of backstage housekeeping like hanging up coats and preparing paper aeroplanes gave an amateur vibe.
One of the best aspects of this production, however, was its ingenious use of red paint. The classic ‘Titus’ discussion beforehand is about how they will show the gory scenes on stage, and this did not disappoint. Pots of red paint lie at the front, ready to use, and characters’ ‘swords’ are paint brushes which they dip in the pots before they carry out their good work. Horrific scenes like Lavinia’s mutilation after her rape look painfully real as she dips her fists into the pots to create the appearance of mangled bloody stumps. The paint has other uses; Titus using it to write his petition to the Roman people of his sons’ innocence, Lavinia using it to write the initials of her attackers on the canvases. It also created the wonderful effect of characters being ‘stained’, in a literal and moral sense. Those who had carried out acts of violence walked around with ‘blood’ still on their hands and costumes, a visual reminder of their deeds, and Lavinia’s pain seemed all the more permanent as, even after her ‘stumps’ have been bound, her mouth still carries the red mark of her mutilation.
The cast gave a sound performance, if a little over-enthusiastic at times. Henri Merriam’s Titus is loud and booming, Madeline Gould’s Tamora deceitful and Carly Jukes’ Saturninus haughty enough. Some of the more comic moments in the play were well acted, with Kudzi Hudson getting many a laugh from the audience for Aaron’s dry comments, and the scene where Demetrius and Chiron discuss their intentions for Lavinia was well portrayed by Ashlea Kaye and Stella Taylor, turning a potentially uncomfortable scene into a funny display of brotherly bravado. At times it was difficult to tell which characters were speaking, with cast members playing multiple characters and quick scene changes, but this soon became apparent as the play went on.
The all-female aspect of this production is rarely an issue, with the cast playing men convincingly. It is only in scenes where the difference in gender is so vital that the cast inexorably fails to convince. Lavinia’s rape scene seems more distressing, her murder by her father to rid her of her shame more perverse, as the element of solidarity between the two genders suggests she is being attacked by her peers. There is definitely a need for more distinct gender boundaries when discussing Roman attitudes to rape.
Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s production of ‘Titus Andronicus’ is therefore more provocative and absorbing than perhaps the play gets credit for. Elements of its direction like the paint and movable canvases were inspired and really made for an energetic performance. This was not a distasteful Shakespearean ‘snuff movie’, but a moving Roman tragedy.