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Friday, 15 July 2011

Review: Difficult but worth it - Titus Andronicus

John Vickery as Titus Andronicus.
Photo by Celia von Tiedemann.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

The story:  Having returned from 40 years of fighting for Rome, General Titus Andronicus turns down the emperor’s laurel, bestowing it upon the late emperor’s eldest son, the debauched Saturninus. However, Titus’ fortune abruptly turns when his daughter Lavinia, who is legally betrothed to another man, defies her father’s wish that she marry Saturninus. In a rage, Titus kills one of his own sons who helped Lavinia escape, and Saturninus takes the captive Tamora, queen of the Goths, as his own queen. She immediately begins plotting revenge on Titus, who would not spare her eldest son from ritual slaying, and when Lavonia pays the ultimate price, Titus vows to take his own path of brutal revenge with horrific consequences.

Titus Andronicus is not a tragedy in the truest sense. There is a lot of death – gruesome death, in fact – but no character ever realizes their own part in bring about their own destruction. If they do, they are unrepentant and defiant to the ugly end.  It is a difficult play for modern audiences to enjoy in the strictest sense of the word, what with the barrage of images from war-torn countries in the past sixty years.

However, in the hands of director Darko Tresnjak, it becomes something disturbingly enjoyable. This is his third or fourth kick at the Andronici can, and although he thankfully dials it back from beheadings with chainsaws to a Beatles’ soundtrack, Mr. Tresnjak brings out every moment of the inopportune, dark humour he can in this Roman world. Feuding, immature brothers, an Edward-Scissorhands flashback, and changing the order of the text just to get a parting giggle from a relieved audience... Mr. Tresnjak pulls no punches.

The production is fantastic. The set is a bare, marble slab set with three illuminated altars, and four scaffold pillars topped with torsos of men in the throes of rage and agony, constantly spotlit. The costumes designed by Linda Cho are white and blood-red (tribunes), bright blue (Andonici), purple and gold (emperor and empress), and although very Roman-looking, Tamora in particular looks every bit the warrior as she hunts the Andonici.  The lighting by Itai Erdai is by turns fractured and brilliant – literally – illuminating Rome’s growing corruption and Lavinia’s mutilation – the audience cannot ignore it if they tried.

In the intimate setting of the Tom Patterson Theatre, no one can ignore the performances, either. At the head of a very strong ensemble, John Vickery is completely believable as Titus, the general with such a firm belief in traditions to the detriment of even the law. By turns quietly menacing, enraged and tender, Mr. Vickery’s brand of quirky humour is well-suited to Mr. Tresnjak’s direction, giving a wry reading of the ‘murdered fly’ scene with his brother Marcus. David Ferry highlights Marcus Andronicus’ voice of reason, as well as to some of the more beautiful poetry of the play – it is evident that one brother is the tribune, the other the warrior when Mr. Ferry and Mr. Vickery share the stage.

Two other brothers are more farcical – Brendan Murray and Bruce Godfree are comical in their immaturity, slinking like curs to their mother’s side in fear, all the more sickening in their rape of Lavinia because one gets the sense they do it only to outdo each other, without thought for the consequences.
Amanda Lisman as Lavinia.
Photo by Celia von Tiedemann

Amanda Lisman portrays the doomed Lavinia, giving her poise and a degree of haughtiness before her downfall, and giving a prolonged illustration of medical shock when reappearing stained with blood before being gently comforted by Marcus and her eldest brother, Lucius (finely played by Paul Fateaux).  A further warning: Ms. Lisman’s rendering of mute anguish may haunt your imagination long after the play lets out.

The true villain of the play is Aaron, lover to queen Tamora, played with an alarming charisma by Dion Johnstone. An early version of Iago, Aaron is unrepentant of his masterminded crimes, but as shown by Mr. Johnstone, almost unbelievably tender to his newborn son. Despite Aaron’s villainy, one may find that Tamora is the scarier character; Claire Lautier brings a calculating watchfulness and a wrath worthy of Jupiter to the role - she and Mr. Vickery have two of the finest stage voices in the cast. Coming up in third place for villain is Sean Arbuckle’s slimy, creepy Saturninus – he comes third only because the others are so evil, plus there is a suggestion that Tamora is trying to poison him. He is the outward face of debauchery – the others keep it well hidden.
Claire Lautier as Tamora.
Photo by Celia von Tiedemann.

By play’s end there are at least 13 deaths, some off-stage but most on. There are mutilations and a rape, and even some cannibalism. And in this production, there is plenty of realistic spurting of blood. This is not meant to scare anyone away from the production – forewarned is forearmed. So while it is hard to like the play itself, this production is certainly worth seeing at least once. It is a rarely done play, and even rarer is it done with such crisp perception in both acting and direction.

It is akin to Stephen Ouimette and Peter Donaldson’s 2004 production of Timon of Athens. It is that good.

Titus Andronicus continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 24, 2011.

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