August 5, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Titus Andronicus (Action To The Word) @ C+1, Edinburgh

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After having seen some 250-odd performances of plays and adaptations of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, I hit something of a landmark last night – my first English-language production of Titus Andronicus, the last play in the established canon which I’d only seen in translation. Coincidentally, this was also my debut show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which I’ve been looking forward to attending for years.

Action to the Word are a young company specialising in Shakespeare, whose Titus had played at a previous Festival to some acclaim. Fast, violent and sexual, this noisy production embraced the play’s physicality and set out, if not to shock, then at least to confront the play in all its unpleasantness. It’s a fairly obvious way for a modern company to approach Titus, confronting its audience with a blitzkreig of music, nudity, blood and cruelty, and I think I would have been more impressed by a subtler take, but there’s no denying the raw power of the play when presented at full tilt.

The play’s aesthetic was influenced by modern gothic subcultures, combining Germanic raves with S&M fantasy. Tamora’s nurse wore killer stilettos, black PVC skirt and a gravity-defying bodice under her medical cap; the Goths of the play’s later acts were mostly represented by three vamps in red corsets who couldn’t keep their hands off each other and hissed ferally at Aaron; and Camilla Rockley’s Tamora wore a succession of leather outfits. Under the influence of the Goths, Rome became decadent: the hunting party overseen by Titus was a rave in which bare male bodies and fetishised female bodies – including Lavinia and Bassianus – gyrated to a soundtrack made up of Muse, Placebo and similar music.

While it is tempting to sexualise the entire society in response to the transgressions of the play, I do wonder if this is necessarily to the play’s dramatic benefit; if a play is going to be noisy from start to finish, how do you make a particular scream effective? I felt that some of the play’s most significant travesties – the heads of Titus’s sons, for example – lost their impact by being part of an aesthetic of more general horror; and this in turn meant that when the production did want to make a scene stand out, it inevitably chose to go entirely over the top. Martin McCreadie’s Chiron and Stevie Raine’s Demetrius were strapped to a swivelling table with a bloodied face painted on it, which was then pivotted so the two were upside down. Thomas Christian’s Titus then played gleefully with a number of potential torture instruments including a hacksaw, before settling on an electric drill, with which he lacerated the victims’ stomachs while other cast members poured whole bags of blood over the two Goths. The ongoing effect was one of rising hysteria, accelerating into a heightened state of chaos, and it was an effect the company handled deftly. Fundamentally, however, there seems to be a risk with this approach of pornographising physical and sexual violence and, while I don’t think Action to the Word did this, there was little salutary purpose to the graphic depictions.

The rape of Lavinia was extremely well-choreographed, and benefitted from being slower than much of the rest of the play owing to being set to John Murphy’s extraordinary "In the House – In a Heartbeat". While the scene inevitably concluded with the brothers carrying out extremely violent acts against Lavinia (throwing her to each other, grabbing her crotch, forcing her onto her knees etc. before carrying her out), the scene’s power came as she appealed to the still Tamora while the brothers snickered and loped around the edges of the stage. The scene was prepared for in Bassianus and Lavinia’s scornful treatment of Tamora, mocking the empress with unwise arrogance. In one beautiful moment, Rockley slowly turned her head to rest her eyes on Hannah Lee’s Lavinia, the deliberation of her movement more terrifying than any amount of blood. As the music built following Bassianus’ murder, the lines became lost under the swelling horror of the scene, Lavinia’s screams becoming ever more piercing.

Christian’s Titus, with a Geordie accent that really worked for the character, contrasted especially well with Simon Cotton’s Saturninus. Cotton was one of the production’s most important aspects, a character who was almost entirely still and spoke his lines with a sarcastic drawl and petulant tone. This politician was removed from the pervasive sexuality of the play and thus acted as a welcome breath of fresh air, forcing a subtler approach which allowed the actors more room to maneuvere, as in Tamora’s faux-diplomatic appeals to him and pretences of innocence. His careful speech contrasted with Titus’s brisker but more free voice. Quick to anger and quick again to be placated, Titus was unpredictable even in his sanity. While the murder of Mutius was cut, the speed at which he put a knife to Lucius’ throat was disquieting, and his rage against his family as powerful as his shock at finding himself in Saturninus’ displeasure.

As the play went on, Christian brought out the humour in Titus with particular skill. His jokes at Lavinia’s expense felt cruel, but his humour was shown to have a manipulative purpose, carefully modulating his voice to shout at opportune moments and keep his enemies in a state of panic. His first laughs were the most poignant, as he giggled and then told Marcus that he had no tears left to shed, his face becoming momentarily blank. Even as the comedy became more frenetic (and I particularly disliked the "comic" reactions of Chiron and Demetrius to Titus’s torture weapons, and Lavinia’s enjoyment of the scene, which tended too far toward parody), Titus kept enough dignity to keep us invested in his fate. The only slight stumble was in his murder of Lavinia, for which the action was slowed momentarily but not enough to get across the emotional impact that was implied in Marcus and Lucius’s reactions.

Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones also understudied Marcus, and did a superlative job, despite confusion throughout over whether the character was being referred to as "brother" or "sister". Spencer-Jones brought a necessary dignity to her scenes, particularly in the discovery of Lavinia where she gently embraced the naked and traumatised girl, helped her into a jacket and supported her offstage. That she had taken up the role in a little over four hours after the regular actor sustained an injury is nothing short of extraordinary. I was less interested in Lucius, who Matt Curran played as quite wet and passive (to amusing effect when he first encountered the ravenous Goths), and the scenes of the Andronici were some of the biggest casualties of the cuts necessary to cram the play into an hour and a half – I was particularly disappointed not to see the fly-killing scene.

There were some lovely moments at the fringes of the production, however. The retention of the Clown was extremely welcome, and Richard Booth gave a wonderfully bumbling performance with Titus and then before the disgusted Saturninus. When he was dragged offstage to his hanging, still oblivious to what was happening, the production demonstrated real heart. Tom Whitelock as the Young Lucius delivered his parcel to Chiron and Demetrius with an interesting and believable mix of fear and defiance. I was also impressed throughout by Adrian DeCosta Carnegie’s Aaron, an articulate and physical performance that, in one wonderful early scene, included the single-handed domination of both Chiron and Demetrius during their violent fraternal tussle. Carnegie, Raine and McCreadie made for an always entertaining triple-act, leering over their enemies and in constant physical contact with one another. The murder of Emma-Jane Martin’s Nurse was a peculiarly unpleasant moment in the casual manner with which all three treated it.

Ultimately, the production’s general unpleasantness was its weakest point, and this was particularly the case in the final chaotic scene, where Titus effectively threw the pie onto the table and force-fed bits of it to Tamora before pushing her face in it to suffocate her. The visceral qualities of the production were perfectly justifiable, but distracted too much from the more subtle aspects of the performances; and crucially, there was almost no time to react to the horror. If it had been a little less rushed, the depth of the production would have been much greater; as it was, this was an effective Titus that left me feeling bludgeoned and exhausted – and for this play, happily, those don’t have to be negatives.

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