Robert Klein (Titus) Photo: Benjamin Laird Arts & Photo.
September 25 – October 5, 2013
The Studio at Vertigo Theatre
Listen to my review on CBC Eyeopener http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2013/09/27/jessica-goldman-titus-andronicus/
Not every creative genius is a child prodigy. For every Mozart who composes symphonies at age eight, there are artistic masterminds who don’t find their voice until well into adulthood. William Shakespeare falls into this latter category. But that’s not to say he wasn’t already trying his hand at playwriting years before he penned his now famous works. Titus Andronicus is one of those early efforts and it shows a young artist unsure of his voice, struggling to keep up with trends and bereft of the dramatic and poetic beauty he would later create.
In fact, Titus is often referred to as the worst play by the best playwright. Others, such as TS Eliot went one step further calling Titus, “One of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.”
While I fear Eliot was employing hyperbole to make his point, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. Titus Andronicus, here performed by The Shakespeare Company and Ground Zero Theatre with the support of Hit & Myth, is a decidedly tedious wisp of a play. Which is astonishing given that it’s one of the bloodiest, goriest and most violent pieces of theatre you’ll likely see.
Best described as an Elizabethan slasher/horror/black humour/revenge play, the story introduces us to Titus (Robert Klein), a fictional Roman general returning from a war where he has conquered Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Natascha Girgis). As if conquering her and her army wasn’t enough, Titus sacrifices her eldest son as penance for the loss of Roman life thus setting in motion the spiral of revenge that drives the play. As payback for her anguish, the Queen encourages her two other sons (Roger LeBlanc and Trevor Matheson) to rape and brutally mutilate Titus’ daughter, Livinia (Leanne Govier). Titus then exacts his revenge by killing the Queen’s remaining sons, baking them into a pie and serving it to the Queen. There’s other violent side stories that involve the Queen’s Moorish lover Aaron (Edward Ogum) who manages to frame the murder of Livinia’s husband on Titus’s sons, two of whom are beheaded for the crime. And of course there’s the behanding of Titus who volunteers the extremity when he falls for the false offer to save his son’s lives. Apparently someone counted and there are 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines of script.
So why then, with all this blood lust and gruesome viciousness and dark humour (all of which I normally adore) was I struggling to stay awake during the production? Part of the blame lies squarely at Shakespeare’s feet and the remainder rests with director Haysam Kadri and his cast.
The best thing I can say about Shakespeare’s writing here is that I hope at some point he looked back on this early creative attempt with the same embarrassment as I have looking back at my sense of style in old prom photos. I picture him saying….Oy! What was I thinking! Titus was written to emulate the gory revenge plays that were all the rage at the time, so yes; this is Shakespeare trying to be trendy. Hey, we’re all vulnerable to popular whims when we’re young (this would describe the inordinate amount of neon I wore in the 80’s). The problem is that trend aside, there is simply no weight or poetry or dramatic engagement in this thinly constructed script. Titus goes from killing his own son for ego sake, to weeping over the loss of his remaining sons at the hands of others. He’s mad one minute and then totally sane the next and then possibly sane but twisted to finish off. We learn all of this not through the wonderful language Shakespeare became known for but through short-lived scenes that move the plot along without making any effort to hook the audience beyond curiosity at what the next gruesome act may be. When the next piece of violence comes (we never have to wait long) our reaction is an emotionless, huh, ok, that happened….next. Hardly a winning formula.
But it’s not like Kadri and his cast didn’t know the limitations of the work going into the production. To his credit, Kadri trimmed Titus’ bloated narrative to a lean two hours and pumped up the gore value of the show by utilizing lots of fake blood, entrails and a severed hand. But dousing this production in body parts and fluids does not distract from its failings. From the opening battle scene with its slow-motion flash-lighting treatment right through to the final pie eating scene, Kadri rushes the violence as though apologetic, thereby sapping all the drama and enjoyment from these scenes. In between these bloody acts Kadri seems content to shuffle the cast on and off C.M Zuby’s minimal and unattractive concrete block-looking stage in quick succession relying on recorded drum beats to fill in for actual flow.
Perhaps all of this could have been forgiven if the cast was up to the task of taking Shakespeare’s weak script and rising above it. Sadly, this was only seldom true. Klein and Girgis do fine jobs embracing Titus and Tamora and both actors deliver the cadence and emotion necessary to make Shakespeare’s words flow naturally. The rest of the cast fell somewhere between adequate and abysmal. The worst offenders were those that proved that yelling your lines does not connote true emotion (Scott McAdam as the Emperor Saturnius, Ogum as Aaron) and those actors that strangely brought a modern-day speaking pattern and pronunciation to the Elizabethan-era prose (Matheson).
This was my first time seeing Titus Andronicus staged and I had been assured that this lesser work fared far better in live action than it does on the page. Alas for me, this Titus may have had loads of blood and guts but it was distinctly lacking heart and brains.
For fans of gore – There is lots of it accompanied by a decent amount of fake blood to keep things messy. But the gore here feels hollow, unsatisfying and often impotent. MAYBE SEE IT
For Shakespeare fans – On the one hand it’s always good to get a full picture of a playwright’s work. On the other hand, not only is this a lesser work, it’s a pretty atrocious one. MAYBE SEE IT
For occasional theater goers – I’d hate for this to be your only, or one of your only Shakespeare experiences. Save your theater dollars and wait for the next production. SKIP IT
For theatre junkies – There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a theatre company who has wowed you in the past fall flat. I suppose you can’t hit it out of the park every time, but part of me wishes I hadn’t tarnished my opinion of these folks with this misstep. SKIP IT