Review: Titus Andronicus (Hart House Theatre)

Hart House Theatre presents The Bard’s bloodiest tragedy, on stage in Toronto

Titus Andronicus, the bloodiest and possibly most infamous of Shakespeare’s tragedies is onstage now at Hart House Theatre. You won’t see this show being put on very often, so if you’re up for some particularly repulsive content, this is your chance.

To be honest, I knew little of Titus Andronicus going into this review, and I made a conscious decision to keep it that way. It seemed like a real treat to experience one of the bards’ tales with a fresh perspective. My guest Arun, despite being a seasoned actor who’s been in multiple Shakespeare productions, went in with a similar mindset. We were both excited going into Hart House theatre.

I did know was that Titus Andronicus would be a dark and violent spectacle. It’s about a Roman General whose life descends into gruesome tragedy as he engages in a cycle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths.

I didn’t think that it would measure up to the bloody television shows I consume on a regular basis. But this production really did succeed in disgusting me. Unfortunately, I found (as many others have) that I’ve little love for the play itself.

With liberal gore and a plot that hinges on sexual assault, this is a very tough show to mount. I’m sympathetic to the necessary difficulties that would come with putting this on, but I did find that this production’s direction was a bit all over the place. Nothing seemed to fit together, from the direction of the actors to the costuming. There were a lot of ideas onstage, and the components ranged from passable to quite good. But taken together, the show seemed to lack a cohesive vision.

Most baffling to me was the inclusion of an uppity clown (Laura Darby) to add “levity” to the violence. Now this isn’t to knock Darby’s clowning, she does a good job, but I don’t understand why the clown is necessary. While someone is being murdered, you have the clown pulling red handkerchiefs from their mouth. Perhaps this could supplement the violence, but they doubled down on that as well.

Some of the performances were downright excellent. Shalyn McFaul’s Tamora was particularly impressive; the character comes off powerful, sultry, and (for most of the show) devilishly clever. Bailey Green added a lot to Lavinia, who I absolutely broke for. And Shawn Lall’s Aaron was deeply enigmatic and intriguing throughout most of the play.

Now I can see why people complain about the play itself, because as these characters transform throughout the show, the writing itself undermines them. However, I feel that more could have been done in the direction of the actors to subvert that, because it seemed to me that this production goes all in on our initial impressions of the characters, but does not devote much attention to how they change throughout the show.

In the case of Demetrius and Chiron, they’re pitched to us as comedic characters but this portrayal doesn’t change at all after they rape Lavinia. I was disturbed to see them clearly playing lines for laughs after this.

I’ll say this: the show had my attention throughout, and I’m glad that I got to see a production of Titus Andronicus, because now I know. While my guest and I had similar reactions, listening to audience members coming out I could tell that some people were taken aback to the point of being intrigued.

Details

  • Titus Andronicus is playing at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until March 10, 2018.
  • Showtimes are Wed to Sat at 8:00 pm, with a Sat matinee on March 10, at 2:00 pm.
  • Tickets are $28 with Student and Senior discounts.
  • You can buy the tickets online or at the front door.
  • Run time is 2h 45min.
  • Audience Advisory: Contains graphic violence, depictions of sexual assault.

Photo of Nathanial Kinghan, Tristan Claxton, Shalyn McFaul, Laura Darby, and David Mackett by Scott Gorman.