Who knew that revenge, murder, rape and a taste or two of cannibalism could be so much fun?
For his Stratford début, director/set designer Darko Tresnjak took on The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus and frequently had the audience rolling in the aisles almost simultaneously with the bloody carnage and sexual mayhem on the stage.
The first of Shakespeare’s classical plays is both a hugely difficult project, but—in the right hands—has inspired (according to noted scholar, Jonathan Bate) “a few remarkable modern productions [which] have revealed that the play may still arouse pity as well as terror in its audiences.”
The terror knows no bounds: beheadings, stabbings, hangings (one for just being the messenger), filicide (equal opportunity here: son and daughter mercilessly slaughtered by their honour-bound dad), amputations (one tongue, three hands) and gang rape. When both the alleged good guys (the Romans) and the bad guys (the Goths) think nothing of the sanctity of human life, it’s hard to work up any sympathy, much less real concern for their defeats.
Two characters from both ends of the moral spectrum could earn real empathy. The most obvious is the lovely Lavinia (Amanda Lisman makes a valiant attempt at playing the only daughter of Rome’s most successful general, Titus Andronicus, newly returned from his latest victory). Through a marriage of convenience and the resultant release of two former enemies (Chiron, Brendan Murray; Demetrius, Bruce Godfree) whose loins clamour for the comely maid, Lavinia is twice mounted and thrice cut, leaving her with no tongue to name her accusers nor hands to damn them in print.
Surely this horrific litany of violations will kindle pity from one and all. And so it might have until Tresnjak messed with the text and had the former beauty take her own revenge on the cowardly pair. Cheaply, cheekily, the guilty “boys” were held down in such a way that a rear-entry punishment seemed the only course open; incredibly the soiled maiden’s stumps were miraculously outfitted with twin gleaming blades to permit her anal revenge most foul. Worse still, the metal-against-metal sound of a last sharpening which heralded this newfound weaponry could well have been lifted from any of Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean flicks. The result? Belly laughs from most of the crowd and a satisfaction that Shakespeare never intended for Lavinia.
The much greater challenge for any director is to come to grips with evil incarnate: Aaron, the black Moor whose novel physique and hidden delights have made him the favourite of Tamora (Claire Lautier) who begins the production as the captured Queen of the Goths only to wile her way into the bed—via marriage—and real power over Saturnius (Sean Arbuckle), Rome’s new emperor after Titus Andronicus declines the honour from his temporarily adoring Tribunes.
What fuels the heinous actions of the unrepentant schemer, adulterer and murderer? The man who boasts “Aaron will have his soul black like his face”? On many occasions throughout the play, the conniver’s skin colour is disparaged—mostly behind his back: once safely in chains the insults are more freely made. Could a life filled with racial epithets and constant scorn drive a proud man to an unquenchable desire to defend his honour? Who amongst the Romans and the Goths could throw that first stone?
Sadly, Tresnjak opts to have this foreshadow of the world’s most ruthless despots deliver the bulk of his lines with a just-so tone, making his martyrdom for his first male heir more surprising than it might have been and the natural consequence of his last piece of revenge. Long before that Ku Klux Klan-infused scene, Aaron is drawn into the yuk-yuk fest. As free-at-last Chiron and Demetrius “enter braving” over the right to bed Lavinia, their mother’s lover is drawn into the fray. Once again the easy laughs are coveted, culminating with Aaron ending the spirited ruckus by literally knocking the battling brothers’ testosterone-rich heads together. Deftly executed in the finest Three Stooges style, the crowd roared on cue even as the referee’s more important motive of using the lust of his mistresses’ siblings to his own murderous gain was lost in the hilarity. Without an overarching, clear delineation of cause and effect actions, Aaron remains just another bad man who deserves what he gets instead of being driven to his dastardly deeds by others.
The same can also be said for Andronicus, the tear-filled general as his family drops like flies (decidedly black, of course) all around him. John Vickery’s performance is frequently a masterpiece of characterization and style, but—maddeningly by now—slips on the silly putty as he childishly rather subliminally ensures that Chiron and Demetrius will be fed to their whoring mother and ever-ambitious father-in-law at a peace-inducing state banquet.
Still, the opening night audience was marvellously entertained (Tresnjak’s design skills were consistently at one with the near-constant spilling of blood) and left the auditorium mightily amused, which was the greatest tragedy of all. JWR