Rape, dismemberment, cannibalism and witty repartee, not usually things that one expects to go together, yet for those who enjoy their plays with all of the above, I may have found just the thing.
Having performed a marvellous, gender-inverted, Taming of the Shrew over the summer one could imagine that the creatives of Arrows&Traps would be willing to rest on their laurels and prepare for panto season, but instead they have chosen to tackle another of Shakespeare’s lesser known works, Titus Andronicus.
Titus is a gory tale of betrayal and vengeance, of one man being brought to the edge of madness before finally striking back, of a mother going to any lengths to avenge the death of a son.
Upon returning to Rome after ten years of campaigning General Titus, played by Matthew Ward find the city he calls home has changed greatly, and is caught up in the rivalry of the deceased emperor’s sons.
Initially this squabble between siblings has little impact on Titus, until he chooses to support the effortlessly political Saturnius, played by Gareth Kearns, over his more earnest brother Bassanius, played by Michael Bagwell.
Saturnius’ character has the smooth yet insincere charm of a born salesman, switching between smarmy platitudes and sudden rage throughout the play, while Bassanius is the more conscientious and measured character, and their exchanges are quite reminiscent of a certain Prime Minister and his opposition leader.
Saturnius’ decision to wed Titus’ daughter Lavinia, played by Remy Moynes, simply to score more points off his brother, also brings to mind the tit-for-tat style of political discourse that has become commonplace in society today, the need to undermine and belittle opponents rather than promote oneself.
However the true seeds of Titus’s downfall are those he brings with, in the form of the captured Goths.
After seeing her eldest son dragged away to be sacrificed, Queen Tamora, played by Elizabeth Appleby, swears revenge, first marrying Saturnius and then conspiring with her sons and servants to bring the family of Andronicus low.
It is not so much the revenge but it’s nature that made Titus Andronicus quite so shocking, the rape and mutilation of Lavinia are some of the most graphically unpleasant scenes Shakespeare put to paper, and this performance does not shy away from them.
Lavinia’s desperate plea to Tamora to spare her from rape at the hands of her sons is one of the most harrowing scenes I have seen onstage in quite some time, with Moynes fear wonderfully offset by Appleby’s indifference.
Tamora’s two sons, Demetrius, played by Alex Stevens, and Chiron, played byWill Mytum are a gleefully sadistic presence, somewhere between Jedward and the droogs of A Clockwork Orange, cruel yet childlike in a way with makes for very uncomfortable watching.
While the terrible twins are undoubtedly monstrous, the greatest villain by far is the machiavellian Aaron, played by company newcomer Spencer Lee Osborne, who acts as the key manipulator, suggesting the rape of Lavinia, and even convincing Titus to give up one of his hands.
Osborne plays Aaron with a gleeful menace, all smiles and smooth tones concealing the ruthlessness beneath, but when the facade cracks in late acts we are given full view of the vicious beast that dwells within.
What truly makes Aaron stand of though is the switch between his callous cruelty towards the Andronicus family and sudden tenderness at the discovery of his child, although his eventual fate puts somewhat of a damper on this emotional revelation.
While the play is overwhelmingly a tragedy, the moments of humour scattered throughout serve not only to break the near constant tension, but also at time to highlight just how horrible the events we are witnessing are.
The interchange between Aaron and Tamora’s sons where the plan the rape of Lavinia is so lighthearted it could be a discussion on what to have for supper, and the sight of the handless Lavinia holding her father’s severed hand between her teeth is morbidly hilarious.
Another highlight are the numerous and excellently choreographed fights sequences, courtesy of fight director Alex Payne, most memorably the three way duel between Bassanius, Demetrius and Chiron is a true joy to behold.
Even without the modern devices used in the play, including Romeo+Juliet style news footage and an intriguing movement piece using game console controllers, the parallels with today’s society are clear to see, be they the lack of trust in government, or the constant brutality we inflict on each other across the world every day.
Though commonly written off as a low-brow gore-fest, this adaptation shows that there is much more to the play than the number of missing limbs.
Titus Andronicus will until Saturday November 14th at the New Wimbledon Theatre Studio.
All photos courtesy of Zoltan Almasi