Titus Andronicus treats Toronto audiences to a “horrific, ridiculous” take on Shakespearean revenge
At The Citadel, Seven Siblings Theatre has given me my first live experience of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and they have surprised and impressed me. I reread the text (for the first time since my early twenties) in preparation for this production, but I still found myself caught off guard by just how perfectly horrific, ridiculous and occasionally tender this play is.
Titus is generally considered to be one of his worst plays and dismissed as an attempt to mimic the popular revenge epics of the time, but man…even weak Shakespeare is packed with arresting text. It’s not subtle; the characters and their motivations are as audacious and plain as a dagger in the face, but a dagger in the face leaves a mighty impression.
Titus, a general in the Roman army, loved by the people, has returned to Rome with prisoners from his victory over the Goths. The prisoners are Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her three sons, and her secret lover, Aaron. To avenge the death of his own sons during the war, he sacrifices Tamora’s eldest despite her desperate plea. This sets in motion a bloody cycle of revenge between them.
The play is absurdist in the amount and intensity of the violence. There is rape. There is mutilation. Hands and heads are lopped off and tossed around. People are murdered and thrown in pits. Throats are slit.
Director Will King has confidently—almost recklessly—intensified the humour in the text. King let’s his cast revel in the grotesque comedy and it is glorious! Rather than dull the horror, we are invited into the fold and asked to be complicit in the atrocities.
As Titus Jamie Johnson is both fun and frightening. In reading the play, there are attitudes that Titus holds that don’t sit right with me, but Johnson strikes the right balance of goofy and intimidating, where rage and pain are always lurking underneath flamboyant antics. His final mad chef moment (depicted in the above photo) is stunning. My guest was too frequently taken out of the moment by his stumbling on bits of text, but I didn’t find it so disruptive.
Kate Werneburg’s sensual and sneaky Tamora is very persuasive and comes off appropriately diabolical.
Dorcas Chiu as Lavinia is heartbreaking to behold after her assault and mutilation. Her furied, silent gestures as she begins to discover a way to communicate her torment without words is an awful, thrilling sight.
Reece Presley and Dylan Brenton are effectively repulsive as Tamora’s rapist sons, Demetrius and Chiron. There is no deep pain underneath their cruelty, there is only hormones and bravado. They made my stomach turn with how unapologetically blunt and crass they were.
While I was never really drawn to Lucius, the eldest son, in the text, I found Margaret Hild passionate and imposing as Titus’ eldest daughter.
It could be due to Aaron being my favourite character in play, but I was particularly drawn to the very charismatic Jordin Hall as the “barbarous Moor.”
(Now, let me take a moment to address that.)
In Shakespeare, we frequently encounter attitudes that are, by today’s standards, problematic. On one level, Aaron can be seen as a racist caricature. Sometimes theatre-makers will give us ironic interpretations to undermine the attitudes expressed, but I think Shakespeare himself was already doing that. A careful look at the actual text of such an uncomfortable characterization reveals important aspects that serve as counterpoint.
Aaron gives us a savage and cruel persona, but he is obviously aware of the attitudes towards him and is intentionally playing into the assumptions made about him and his “devil” race for his own satisfaction. Even before he speaks in this production, Hall is fascinating to watch because he, himself, is constantly watching others, looking for his chance to play people against each other and, ultimately, bring down the whole rotten society.
“If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” The line chills me as I imagine the intensity of anger at the world that lead to such a sentiment.
Shoutout to puppet master Robin Polfuss and her team of performers for their very compelling puppetry. I didn’t completely understand the symbolism behind the specific character choices. Why is emperor Saturninus an ant and his brother Bassianus a ram? There is an obvious play on insects and mammals, but I stopped trying to intellectualize it and just let the wonderfully nuanced movement and voice work create a compelling world.
Seven Siblings’ Titus Andronicus is a visceral thrill. The performances and stagecraft are not consistently convincing, but all the important moments work exceptionally well and the overall effect is bold, harrowing and hilarious.
- Titus Andronicus plays until November 6, 2016 at The Citadel (304 Parliament Street)
- Shows run October 28 to 30 at 8pm, November 2 to 6 at 8pm, and November 5 at 2pm.
- Tickets are $15-$20 and can be purchased online
Photo of Jamie Johnson provided by the company.