Last week was Shakespeare’s birthday, so The Show Must Go Online went all out with their latest production, holding a Titus Andronicus party in the Bard’s honour. If you thought the previous week’s Henry VI, part three was brutal… Well, let’s just say that that was just the warm-up! Clearly on a roll with scenes of bloodshed, Shakespeare went straight from some real history into fake history for a vengeful trip to Rome.
I’ve only ever seen this play once before, and I didn’t leave feeling much more familiar with the story than when I went in; it was a more physical theatre approach to the play, and the finer details of what they were hoping to put across just weren’t clear to me at all. Memories of that haven’t exactly inspired my to seek out Titus Andronicus ever again, though after seeing this production I’ll definitely be more open to watching other versions in the future.
Artistic director of the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival, Tony Pisculli, was in charge of this week’s introduction, and did an excellent job of avoiding spoilers so as not to ruin the effect of the production. His first question when unpacking the play is this: “Who are the teams?” By starting big (Romans vs. Goths), you can then narrow it down until you reach the more personal rivalries that drive the action forwards – they start to turn on each other and pursue their own goals, rather than what’s necessarily best in the scheme of things. It’s helpful to remember that Imperial Rome in this play appointed its leaders by gauging public and military approval, rather than it being an hereditary system, which is where the whole downward spiral begins. Pisculli’s comment that it’s “hard to know how we’re supposed to respond to it” is also worth bearing in mind; yes, there’s a lot of graphic & detestable violence in the play, but there are also moments of comedy – and even some of the more brutal scenes might end up being unintentionally amusing. Basically, any response is valid, in this “genre play that transcends its genre”.
The emperor is dead, and his sons Bassianus & Saturninus are rowing over who should succeed him. Marcus Andronicus arrives to tell them that the people’s choice is actually his brother, Titus, who shortly afterwards makes a triumphant return to Rome after waging war against the Goths. He brings with him prisoners of war: Tamora (Queen of the Goths), her three sons (Alarbus, Chiron & Demetrius), and Aaron the Moor. As Titus has lost all but four of his 25 sons in battle, he sacrifices Alarbus as an act of revenge – this sets Tamora and her remaining sons on course for vengeance of their own. Rather than taking the imperial throne himself, Titus instead endorses Saturninus’ claim and he is elected emperor. Despite his brother already being betrothed to her Saturninus decides he wants to marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia. When Bassianus refuses to break the engagement, and Titus ends up killing one of his sons (Mutius) for backing Bassianus’ claim, Saturninus instead takes Tamora as his bride – thus providing her with the platform from which to exact her revenge…
Of all the times for there to be a technical hitch… Though it’s testament to the team & the technology that it’s taken until now for anything to really go wrong – and still manage to go ahead with the production without too much of a delay.
No in-show game this week – instead the challenges went out beforehand, with recipes and dress codes provided for anyone who wanted to join in. I didn’t have the facilities to make anything (more’s the pity), but I couldn’t not be eating pie so I instead raided the shops for pasties & Bakewell tarts that looked like eyeballs (very much classified as essential shopping, in my book) – I also finally had an excuse to test out my ‘Roman Fruits’ York Gin, in a nod to both this play and the previous trilogy.
This week’s show was labelled as ‘not suitable for children’, with warnings of “violence and scenes that may be upsetting; contains potentially distressing content including mutilation, racism and references to sexual violence”. So how else could it be styled than as Shakespeare meets Quentin Tarantino? By coincidence, off the back of Henry VI, part three I decided to finally start watching through his films (having only previously seen Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood); I began with Reservoir Dogs the day before Titus Andronicus, and that’s all I needed to confirm what a perfect fit the theme was. Mindless violence and blood spilling everywhere is a pretty basic summary. The sharp suits for the Romans worked excellently, as they would have seen themselves as the civilised & controlled ones – as opposed to the wildness of the Goths – and making guns their weapons of choice worked well in this medium, as well as it tallying with the style of the piece.
Though the play can be dismissed for all the violence it either depicts or alludes to, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, which for me suggests that Shakespeare was both plundering the ideas of the time that worked & were popular (catering for the masses), as well as starting to explore ideas that he would go back to later in his career – there are hints of Hamlet in there, with feigned madness, a traumatised daughter & deaths aplenty, plus it would also be interesting to compare and contrast Titus & Lavinia’s relationship with that of King Lear & Cordelia. Of course, one thing the inherent violence of the play meant was more brilliant innovation in terms of props and action; Chiron & Demetrius’ most brutal acts were visualised thanks to some very lifelike props being butchered and broadcast as if Demetrius were filming it on his phone.
Another exceptional cast – even including a couple of fairly late amendments to the original company, just to keep everyone on their toes! (Mark Hammersley switching from Swing to Bassanius, and Dannan McAleer coming in as second Swing.) One standout (and groundling favourite) had to be Tiffany Ambercrombie as Lavinia; though it may not have been easy on her side of things, being unable to play off her co-stars’ reactions, as a viewer this is a brilliant medium for bringing across Lavinia’s quiet despair in the latter end of the play. Michael Bertenshaw was terrific in the title role, taking Titus on a journey from battlefield bruiser to broken man. They may have got up to terrible things, but Tricia Mancuso Parks, Charles Sloboda-Bolton & Matthew Rhodes were excellent value as Tamora and her sons Demetrius & Chiron.
This was definitely a fitting way to see us into #ShakespeareDay, and now I really want to see a Tarantino Andronicus on a stage somewhere. How atmospheric would that be? I’m glad that this version has helped me to appreciate the play more, and it was great to see the concerted focus on this being a modern-day production (the first in the series) as it made for a really special evening.
Next week: Richard III
Titus Andronicus was broadcast on 22 April 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page.