Titus Andronicus is famously known as William Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, a reputation which has given the play a problematic history of being disparaged by critics and scholars and largely ignored by theatre directors and producers until quite recently. It is given life this summer by director Jesse MacLean at Point Pleasant Park’s Shakespeare By the Sea, playing until August 31st, 2012.
Titus Andronicus is a revenge play, which were exorbitantly popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The play centres on a Roman general, Titus Andronicus, who returns to Rome with prisoners of war, including the Queen of the Goths and her three sons. He sacrifices the oldest to avenge his own twenty one sons who were killed in the conflict and thus sets into motion a grisly cycle of murder, torture and anguish between these two families.
The tone of the play is eerie and intense from its first moments, and it is especially effective to watch this at the Cambridge Battery site, as the sun sets and leaves the actors under the night sky in perfect synchronization with the unfolding of the play’s darkest and most shrouded deeds. There are some wonderful performances in this production and some very strong choices by MacLean that thrust this story into the contemporary age.
Marty Burt plays Titus with the right mixture of hubris and fatherly humanity. There is a moment when Titus in an offended rage kills one of his own sons, and Burt’s slow realization of what he has done as the wild anger drains from him is fascinating to watch. His compassion for Lavinia and the harrowing despair that he feels as his children return to him dead and mutilated resonates powerfully, which makes the play a true tragedy rather than just a gory bloodbath. He is matched by Kimberley Cody, as the vengeful Queen Tamora and Jacob Sampson as the evil Moor, Aaron, whose lust for blood and for one another is dramatically rendered.
One of the haunting themes in this play is that a culture of violence is cyclical and when compassion, empathy and pity are absent the innocent often pay for the guilty’s crimes with their lives. These grudges are inherited, as we see Tamora and Aaron not only encouraging her young sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to “do what they will” with Lavinia, but the boys are actually instructed and tutored in the barbarous acts of torture and rape. Simon Rainville (Demetrius) and Drew O’Hara (Chiron) begin the play as rapier-happy, boisterous boys competing in their love for Lavinia. They are fueled by youth and testosterone, but there is an innocence in them and it is disturbing to watch how their vile maliciousness grows as Aaron continues to corrupt their hearts. In the middle of the play an illegitimate child is born to Tamora and Aaron, and throughout the play the baby stands for the future of perpetuated violence in Rome. If he is to be raised in the image of his father and his brothers, he too will be a groomed murderer and rapist. If he is to be killed by the new Emperor, Lucius, for the deeds of his family, than Lucius is no more benevolent than Titus or Tamora.
Aaron can be seen as a problematic character because he seems to represent an entity that is entirely evil, with no redeeming qualities. Aaron revels in butchery and the barbaric, and like Iago in Othello he prides himself on the ability to inspire such acts in others, rather than blooding his own hands. Jacob Sampson is gleefully nefarious with a glimmer of madness about him and manages to give some weight and depth to a character who can seem one dimensional in less capable hands.
My favourite of MacLean’s choices was to change the Emperor’s brother, Bassianus, lover of Lavinia, into a sister, Bassiana, played with great strength and dignity by Emma Laishram. This gives the play an even more contemporary edge and the relationship between Laishram’s Bassiana and Riley Raymer’s sweet Lavinia is the purest in the play. They represent the potential for peace, which makes their grisly demise even more heartbreaking.
As Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, directors have encountered challenges with striking the proper balance in depicting the violence onstage. There are aspects of MacLean’s production that are fantastic, for example, the scene when Titus’ hand is cut off causes the audience to recoil in horror, but does not require superfluous gory props. The sword fights, with direction by Jeremy Hutton, are well staged and are filled with powerful aggression and strong, decisive actions that are mesmerizing to watch. Yet, there were a few instances where I felt that there wasn’t enough blood to adequately convey the atrocities that had been inflicted on these people. I know that fake blood is not ideal for performances in the park, but nevertheless, I wanted Lavinia to have some pouring from her mouth and on her clothes, while the Trekkie Monster-inspired mitts that she was wearing after her hands were cut off made me more confused than horrified.
In all, Titus Andronicus leaves us with a lot to think about. It has been argued that this is the Shakespearean play best suited to our own time, because we can relate to its horrific violence and mindless human atrocities better than other societies since it was written. This is a sad critique of the 21st Century, but one that I feel is not without its merits. Certainly with the conflicts we have seen in Syria, Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda and with the spirit of revenge and murder that hits even closer to home and marks our fascination with bloody films and video games, we would be well advised to take Shakespeare’s fictional tale to heart. Titus Andronicus can be hard to watch, but I think we have averted our eyes long enough.
Titus Andronicus plays August 28th and 31st at 7:00pm at the Cambridge Battery in Point Pleasant Park. A suggested $15 donation is accepted at the door. Bring your own blankets or chairs or rent a chair for an additional $2.00.