Originally staged as a Unitec graduate show with an all-male cast in 2012, and subsequently revived at Q Theatre in 2013, Titus returns for a third time at the Pop-up Globe. While I can’t speak for the quality of the previous seasons, I can safely say that you won’t see a more accessible version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus onstage any time soon.
Titus has always sat awkwardly in Shakespeare’s output, considered to be a minor work. T.S Eliot once called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” And while the content of the play, including (but definitely not limited to) infanticide, cannibalism and rape, is hardly enlightening, anyone willing to watch the play has to accept that it is pure bloodsport. You watch little more than two sides of Romans who attempt to one-up each other in a game of violent vengeance. But rather than treat it in an overly serious manner as a serious drama, director Benjamin Henson rightfully stages it as a tragic farce.
In a brilliant move, the entire play is framed as a game that a group of young savage boys are performing, with Rome represented as a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The best way to describe it would be as a cross between South Park and Lord of the Flies, where the cartoonish crudity of the former is mixed with the barbarism and loss of innocence of the latter. More than just a gimmick, this framing device presents a series of opportunities. Firstly, it allows for the all-male cast of mostly younger males to play some of the female roles, with an explanation and context. Secondly, we accept the ridiculousness of the plot and behaviour of the characters more readily when they’re being driven by the emotions of young savage men, rather than looking for psychological motivation that is lacking in the text. And, lastly, the violence never needs to be ultra-realistic, we only need to believe that the characters believe in it.
As you’d expect from a cast that has performed this show before, they are all comfortable in the roles and, even more importantly, comfortable on this new stage. Every single player is utilised to their best strengths, and it shows. Paul Lewis as the titular Titus brings a deep gravitas to the production; he is both the eldest and most traditionally-suited to his role. He’s exceptional here as the fierce and patriotic war hero, driven first by pride and then by revenge, and wouldn’t be out of place on the actual Globe stage. The rest of the cast, while less obvious in their roles, are no less perfect in Henson’s production. You can tell Cole Jenkins is having almost too much fun as Tamara, Queen of Goths. It’s the most overtly feminine performance and is handled with the right amount of camp and viciousness, more femme fatale than drag queen. As Saturninus, Emperor of Rome, James Roque pitches his performance between petulance and ignorance, revealing the character for the teenage boy he really is. In dual roles Bassianus and Aaron, Jason Hodzelmans finds relish in the Shakespearean language, and steals the spotlight as Aaron, displaying a clear intelligence and ambition. Lavinia, though usually presented solely as a victim, is given a blackly comic spin by Eli Matthewson without making a mockery of her situation. Jason Wu plays Chiron with an insatiable savagery that is more animal than man. And David Sutherland’s eloquent sadism as Demetrius nicely balances his performance as honourable and justice-seeking Lucius.
The props by Gayle Jackson, using soft toys, dolls and black goo to represent dead bodies, limbs, blood and other morbid miscellany is also remarkably effective. This does occasionally undermine the dramatic heaviness of the play with somewhat inappropriate comedy, for instance, when bodies are buried. But as the blackly comic tone of the play settles, it becomes less of an issue. The costumes, also by Jackson, are equally stripped down, consisting mostly of rags, with the occasional anachronistic neon jacket that clashes wonderfully with the sense of ruin. The music by the Caribbeanz Southern Stars Steel band is also delightfully incongruous to the show, festive and playful in all the right and wrong ways.
If Henson’s version of Titus takes too many liberties—in downsizing the cast and cutting the text—to be called a definitive version, it’s definitely for the better. The problems with the show are strictly problems with the play, but even most of those faults are twisted into virtues, and embraced gleefully at every turn. Even the most ridiculous scenes, including the ridiculously clunky opening and Tamara dressing up as Revenge, are handled masterfully. What could be a tediously long evening, essentially just a dragged out gorefest, ends up moving so quickly and relentlessly that, if not for the people standing, you’d wish there was no intermission
While Titus is, at heart, a gratuitous bloodbath, Henson and his team don’t let the audience off the hook too easily. Knowing there’s no chance we can empathise with the characters on any deep or personal level, they make us, instead, complicit in the action, indulging and even enjoying the sadistic antics to the very last bite. If you didn’t see it the first two times, now’s your chance. An exceptional production of a flawed text. This is theatre that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and makes you like it.
Titus is presented by Fractious Tash and plays at the Pop-up Globe until 20 March. Details see Pop-up Globe.