Titus Andronicus | Theatre Review

Space, 269 Westferry Road, London

16/12/10

★★★☆☆

To the tune of scrambled radio interference, the players force their way into the hall, surrounding the audience and drawing us into their dysfunctional community. This static noise is an appropriate choice for a narrative all about communication gone tragically wrong, and provides a perfect background for the introduction of our eponymous protagonist, a likable yet flawed individual who is destined for a world of waking nightmares.

Re-enacted in a former church, there is an undeniable poetry to the location of this play. As we look up to where the Presbyterian vicar once stood, the historic voice of Titus Andronicus joins the unwitting chorus of transient patriarchal power. With a frail anger that fills the hall yet comes across rhetorically impotent, Maloney’s delicate portrayal lets this renowned ‘noble Roman’ becomes a weak, attention-craving joker. This is no criticism. Rather, Maloney has captured a beautiful degree of balance: although Titus’s voice is heard by many in the public realm, he is simultaneously shown to be deeply human with intensely private emotions.

Countering this, the company move away from humanising portrayals as they turn to the sensitive and disturbing topic of rape. Here, Action to the Word add suggestions and symbols of their own creation to Shakespeare’s figurative moments in order to sculpt a tasteful representation. Their inclusion of a shopping trolley to move victim Lavinia is key, giving us an appropriate image of the commodification of woman. The production also highlights the playwright’s fitting metaphor when, as Titus’s daughter becomes a woman who cannot speak, but only bleed, we witness a disturbing and memorable portrayal of the emotional impact of rape. Throughout, the work is dripping with allusion, preventing us from lingering long on the acts themselves. Rather, we are encouraged to plot how these acts contribute to the tale’s unfolding narrative and primitive emotional themes.

And with a play that uses rape as an accessory to dark themes of desire and power, performers will inevitably have to face the challenge of withstanding feminist readings. Disturbingly, the women of this piece function largely as props for the men to play with as they negotiate their grasps on power and love. Ignored, abused and butchered, Lavinia is a key victim of male sexual and criminal desire. But her bad luck doesn’t stop there as she becomes muse for Shakespeare’s verbal extravagances, communicated through the figure of Marcus. In this adaptation, Thomas Christian captures this mood by leisurely observing Lavinia in her bloody and naked state. As Lavinia’s character is exploited both inside the narrative and through the mechanics of the script, one supposes that we’re never meant to fall for this helpless woman.

This is a play full of flaws, but these ornament the work’s characters with an unquestionable power. From the characters’ weaknesses emerge rich and emotive senses of humanity, despite their grotesque patterns of revenge. This is certainly not Shakespeare’s most accessible play but, with an adaptation as thought-provoking as this, it’s certainly the most rewarding.

(originally published on remotegoat.co.uk)

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