The bloody Shakespeare tragedy Titus Andronicus is playing this summer at Toronto’s High Park
This year, Canadian Stage brings another duo of Shakespearean theatre to the ampitheatre in Toronto’s High Park. Playing alongside the comedy As You Like It is Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, known as his bloodiest production. It’s a shocking choice to make, bringing this lesser known and rather gory production to Shakespeare in High Park — an event known to be family friendly. It’s a production that is comparable to Game of Thrones simply for the staggering body count.
Titus Andronicus is a production that not many are familiar with, considering the gory nature of the story and how it gets dwarfed by the success of his later works. Admittedly, it was a production that I wasn’t entirely familiar going in — not being one I learned in high school English class. A brief refresher may do you well beforehand.
In essence, the story revolves around Titus (Sean Dixon), a Roman general fresh from his victory of a ten-year war with the Goths. Presenting the spoils of war — Tamora (Shauna Black), Queen of the Goths, her three sons and Aaron of Moor (Beau Dixon) — to the emperor and his sons Saturninus (James Graham) and Bassianus (Alexander Plouffe). When offered the emperor’s throne, Titus declines and leaves the throne to Saturninus who thanks him by declaring his intentions to wed Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Chala Hunter), but only then does he see Tamora and declares her his empress instead. Within her new seat of power, Tamora swears revenge. Meanwhile Aaron of Moor devises his own plans for vengeance.
It’s a story that has everything you’d want from an action packed Shakespearean tragedy: war, betrayal, lust, and blood — plenty of blood. Considering that, and in maintaining the family-oriented nature of the space, I was curious to see how they were going to pull off the violence and blood. Yes, there is a parental advisory in effect, and in keeping that in mind, what director Keira Loughran has created is a highly stylized production that generously uses sweeps of red fabric – ribbon, string, cloth – to imply blood, death and dying in a way that is seamless and unobtrusive.
This performance is a visual masterpiece, from the luscious costumes designed by Angela Thomas to Julia Tribes’s set design and even the fight direction by Simon Fon — which was particularly interesting to watch, especially with the Goths and their use of more Asian-style fighting techniques (I noticed a few kendo stances in there). There’s plenty going on with each scene that is stimulating to the senses and that alone will make the 90-minute production fly by.
As for the performances themselves. I felt particularly drawn to Jan Alexandra Smith as Marcas, Titus’ sister, which has been gender-bent from the original character giving her new nuances and emotions to fulfill. She as aunt (rather than uncle) to Lavinia gives her a more motherly role — one that gives a roundedness to the story that is otherwise predominantly filled with rage. When she is the one to discover a butchered and brutalized Lavinia, her anguish is raw and palpable.
Gwenlyn Cumyn and Michael Man as Chiron and Demetrius, Tamora’s sons brought a wonderful vitality and deviousness to their roles that were a pleasure to watch.
Of course Sean Dixon did a fantastic job taking on the lead, starting with the sheer exhaustion of having survived a decade-long war followed by the tragedy that befalls him on his return home. I was equally blown away by his rage as I felt for his sorrow. Granted there are a few moments where some of his actions inspired a smattering of giggles from the audience — in particular a rather amusing way in which he shows the loss of his hand — but it doesn’t take away from his overall performance.
Bring a few friends, a couple of blankets, snacks and drinks, bug spray and sun block and make an evening of seeing Shakespeare under the stars. Though this performance is far from romantic, it will surely add to a fantastic night out.
- Titus Andronicus is playing at the High Park Ampitheatre (1873 Bloor Street West, site specifics can be found on the online map).
- Performances run until August 31 on alternating days (Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays) at 8 pm — check website for details.
- Tickets $25 in advance online or PWYC ($20 suggested) at the door.
Photo of Jan Alexandra Smith and Chala Hunter by David Hou.