New Wimbledon Theatre
24th October 2015
“[Titus Andronicus] has been derided, ignored, used for cheap thrills and shock value, and yet its notoriety for violence precedes it with tales of fainting audiences and projectile blood spray. What is it about Titus that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of scholars, so much so they’ve spent decades trying to discredit its authorship – as if the play’s depictions of rape, mutilation, murder and enforced cannibalism are beneath the great Bard?”
Ross McGregor, Company Director, October 2015.
Titus Andronicus is a relentlessly miserable play, aptly described by Arrow and Traps Theatre Company in terms of a “grubby, merciless game of thrones”. Essentially, everybody dies, and with the maximum of fuss. The Philomelic fate cruelly doled out to one of the characters, and the layered revenge dished out to her tormentors, are just the best known examples of grisly acts that catalyse the narrative.
Rome is beset by political feuding, as Prince Bassanius (Michael Bagwell) and Prince Saturninus (Gareth Kearns) fight to succeed their late father as Emperor. Yet the tribune of the people, Marcia Andronicus (Cornelia Baumann) discovers that the popular choice is her brother, Titus (Matthew Ward), a famed and battle weary general who has just returned from a successful 10 year campaign against the Goths. Only four of his sons survived the conflict, so to make amends for the others’ deaths, he executes the eldest son of the imprisoned Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Elizabeth Appleby). Tamora’s prospects look little better, but when Titus refuses the throne and backs Saturninus’s campaign, she is taken as the latter’s bride. She and her sons, Demetrius (Alex Stevens) and Chiron (Will Mytum), along with her secret lover, Aaron (Spencer Lee Osborne) swear vengeance against the Andronicus clan, which includes Lavinia (Remy Moynes), Titus’s ill-fated daughter and Bassanius’s wife.
Arrow and Traps’ production explores the play’s “notoriety for violence” as a mirror to our society’s lack of empathy. Not only are the characters largely dressed in modern clothing, but scenes regularly transition via moments of 21st Century indulgence. Saturninus celebrates his political triumph in a strip club with his wife and new step sons, whom we later see drinking shots and snorting cocaine in front of a blithely texting Aaron. Most memorably of all, Titus rallies his grandson, young Lucius (Pippa Caddick), to spread word of Saturninus’s incompetence as ruler via Twitter, and we see his conversations play out on a large screen in the corner of the stage. Soon he is joined by a dozen pig-masked men and women, lit solely by the glare of their mobile phones, along with Saturninus, who is visibly pained by the cacophonous rattle of their typing. It is a gleefully knowing scene, with more than a touch of Black Mirror about it.
The excellence of this production is not, however, defined by its modern inflections; rather it is the well observed, often very physical performances, coupled with the superb choreography, which elevates Shakespeare’s patchy script. The minimalist set – consisting of a beamed platform and the aforementioned screen – is used to terrific effect, with the former intriguingly informing the narrative’s fluctuating power dynamics. Amongst others, it serves as the Roman court where Tamora convinces Saturninus to spare the lives of the Andronicus clan – so she may exact her own revenge – the pit where Quintus (Cliff Chapman) and Martius (David Lenik) Andronicus stumble across Bassanius’s corpse, sealing their fate, and the arena where Lucius Andronicus (Samuel Morgan-Grahame) rallies his army of Goths. The final scenes, where the Andronicus clan prepare for Tamora and Saturninus’s grisly feast, are the only ones to rely on additional furniture, and they are beautifully realised – with tables and corpses manoeuvred around the stage with an almost balletic quality.
The employment of empty spaces also impresses. In this regard, the standout performers are Mytum and Stevens as the psychopathic brothers Chiron and Demetrius, and Osborn as their tutor in evil, Aaron. Possessing the twitchy energy of Mad Max’s War Boys, but with bubbling wells of blackness at their core, the brothers pollute every second they inhabit the stage, harbingers of aimless brutality. Their family unit is compellingly animalistic. Permission to attack is invariably given by the more physically imposing Tamora or Aaron, and they circle their prey – Bassanius, Lavinia and later Annie McKenzie’s simple Clown – with terrifying precision. They are by no means subtle constructions – every sword movement is pointedly phallic – but they neatly exemplify the pointless chaos that underpins the narrative.
Osborn’s Aaron, by contrast, is a charming and calculating politician, somehow smiling and smiling and being a compelling villain in spite of his occasionally ludicrous dialogue (“Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace. Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (Act 3, Scene 1), for instance). He is given far more opportunities to command the stage than Kearns’ Saturninus – who, devoid of character development, nevertheless delivers an entertaining performance as the archetypal self indulgent emperor – or Bagwell’s likeable Bassanius, a part which becomes more interesting in death. Indeed, Osborn is brilliantly frantic during one of the play’s few emotionally complex scenes, charging round the stage with his bastard son in one hand and a sword in the other, fending off his lover’s children.
It is often difficult to feel much sympathy for Titus, who kills two young men (including his son Mutius, for saying, “My lord, you pass not here”) in the first scene alone, but Ward does a good job at illuminating his emotional battle scars. The cycle of revenge that he and Appleby’s delightfully heartless Tamora engage in is not only embellished by the actors’ strong chemistry, but by the believably tender relationship he has with his daughter Lavinia – a role that Moynes portrays with heartbreaking intensity. Though Titus’s descent into madness, and later re-emergence, was a little unfocused, Ward is otherwise steely, determined, and a thoroughly convincing ruler of men.
The strength of the Andronicus family unit after Lavinia’s ordeal is grounded by Baumann’s rational Marcia, a gender inverted Marcus Andronicus. Hampered by prosaic dialogue – not least when revealing Lavinia’s treatment to Titus (“Titus, prepare thy aged eyes to weep; Or, if not so, thy noble heart to break: I bring consuming sorrow to thine age.” (Act 3, Scene 1)), Baumann compensates tremendously, carrying the weight of inner turmoil with utter conviction. In turn, Morgan-Grahame’s Lucius and Pippa Caddick’s young Lucius do well to hint at the happy life Titus once enjoyed, making the vengeance that the two wreak in Act 5 even more disturbing.
Titus Andronicus is not one of Shakespeare’s finest plays, but Arrow and Traps’ Theatre Company do a splendid job with their adrenaline fuelled, and often nightmarish interpretation. The excellent choreography, universally strong performances and nicely observed modern touches means that if you can stomach the premise, the production’s not to missed.