Theater Reviews

Titillating Titus: Titus Andronicus at the Rose Playhouse

 Deanna Smid (Brandon University)

Titus Andronicus, Rose Playhouse, 5 to 30 July 2016

Director: Jung Han Kim
Set and costume designer: Yole Lambrecht
Lighting designer: Petr Vocka
Dramaturge and assistant director: Stevan Mijailovic
Production manager: Pamela Schermann
Stage manager: Marleen Zeirzer
Production intern: Kieran Mason
Photographer: Yole Lambrecht

Cast:
Fiona Battersby: Bassianus / Ensemble
David Couter: Demetrius / Lucius / Ensemble
Mark Curley: Marcus / Chiron / Ensemble
Laura Hopwood: Tamora / Ensemble
Charles Sandford: Titus Andronicus / Ensemble
Tenadi, Humphrey Sitima: Aaron / Mutius / Ensemble
Sunny Yeo: Saturninus / Ensemble

Adapted by Jung Han Kim
Produced by Luvas Theatre Company and Time Zone Theatre in association with The Rose Playhouse, Bankside

 

Titus-Press2Young, scantily clad actors writhing together on stage, glistening with sweat. Such a theatrical scene is not unusual, but at the Rose Playhouse, that writhing takes places inches from the audience’s feet. The Rose Playhouse is situated on the archeological remains of the Rose Theatre where Titus Andronicus was first performed. Now the original Rose is little more than partially excavated ruins under a modern London high rise. In that dark, cold space, the Rose Theatre Trust has created a small, intimate stage, where the fifty or so audience members sit around the edge of the tiny platform, watching the action immediately in front of them. The peculiarities of the performance space demand peculiar productions as well: because the venue has neither toilets nor heating, performances are limited to ninety minutes, without an interval.

In those ninety minutes, director Jung Han Kim creates a Titus that is intensely sexual, violent, and at times surreal. Because of the small cast, each actor has to perform multiple duties, and at times the audience has to imagine characters they have never seen. Titus’s two sons framed for the murder of Bassianus, for example, never appear on stage, so it is difficult for the audience to sympathize with Titus’s grief for those two (invisible) sons. Kim also has to contend with the difficulty of re-animating corpses: when a character is killed on stage (a common occurrence in Titus), Kim has neither a curtain nor a crew to drag away the character. Instead, he creates a sort of “death song,” which the rest of the cast hums as they symbolically lift and push the “corpse” to its feet. Throughout the play, that simple song becomes the signal that an onstage corpse is no longer a corpse, but one of the characters again. Such theatrical shorthand, while effective, is also quite demanding on the imaginative powers of the audience.

The relative youth of the actors allows for a Titus that is incredibly sexual and sensuous. That youth and vitality is at odds with a few lines in which Titus mentions his “aged” nature, of course. Out of place, too, are the genders of Bassianus and Saturninus, played by Fiona Battersby and Sunny Yeo. Both women are called “he,” but the audience is always aware that they are women. The marriages of Saturninus and Tamora and Bassianus and Lavinia are both lesbian and not lesbian. I couldn’t help but wonder if this arrangement is a reversal of the first performance of the play, in which Tamora and Lavinia were both played by boy actors.

The play opens with a staged battle between Titus and the Goths, in which Titus (played by Charles Sandford) overpowers the Goths with his bare hands. Indeed, most of the deaths on stage are by strangulation, placing the bodies of the victim and killer in close, intimate contact as the killer strains and the victim writhes. That sensuality continues in the character of Tamora, admirably performed by Laura Hopwood. Then, of course, comes the rape of Lavinia by the bestial Chiron and Demetrius. The “rape” takes place onstage, right before the horrified eyes of the audience. The most chilling part of the rape is the immediate moment preceding it, where a desperate Lavinia (played by Miranda Shrapnell) knows what is about to happen, but can do nothing to stop it. Because the audience is so close to the stage—indeed, is on the stage—it is difficult not to feel a certain responsibility and complicity. A woman is raped a foot away from the audience, and the audience, constrained by the tyranny of decorum, does nothing. Lavinia’s stumbling across the stage after the rape, knees locked, trembling, is absolutely heart breaking. Then, when Marcus appears and questions her, asking her to speak, she can do nothing but let out a shocking scream.Titus-Press1

During the rape scene, the rest of the actors stand in a circle around the three characters, and each time that Chiron or Demetrius mimic thrusting, the rest of the actors take a drink of water and spit it into a bucket. The scene is bizarre and repulsive, adjectives well-suited to Titus Andronicus. The surreal nature of the play continues when, during a mad dance, Tamora gives birth to brown, misshapen feces, which Aaron eats. Kim thus deletes the story line of Aaron’s son, allowing him to stay within his ninety minute limit. The scene is repeated when Tamora eats another brown pastry, completely silently, while the rest of the actors stand around her and watch. Her eating of the pastry (which stands in for the pie containing the heads of Chiron and Demetrius) is sensual, horrifying, and a bit pathetic. Indeed, the play is filled with inappropriate laughter, such as during the punishment of Chiron and Demetrius. When Lavinia and Titus capture and restrain the rapists, Lavinia plasters the faces of the two men with lipstick. Laughing, Titus takes off his pants and mimics forcing the two men to fellate him. When he turns around, he has lipstick on his underwear, so the audience has no doubt what he was doing to the two brothers.

DSC_0175In his adaptation of the play, Kim cut most of the many classical quotations from the original play. The result is a play that is more action than word, more body than mind. To Kim, this must be Shakespeare made new, for the performance is a part of a project called Contemporary Shakespeare, which brings together artists from around the world to perform Shakespeare’s plays in London and New York.

In the program notes, Kim writes that he wants to “discover [the] deeper meaning” of Titus, and although I’m not sure I came away with any “deeper meaning” of the play, I left the theatre deeply moved and deeply glad to have seen this remarkable production at the Rose Playhouse.Titus-Press3

 

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