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The theatre company turning Shakespeare on its head

It is not difficult to understand why the works of Shakespeare are often attacked as outdated and inaccessible, a collection of memorable yet inscrutable wordplay written in a language we no longer speak.

In a world where we can speak to a person on the other side of the globe, or store a months worth of music in the palm of your hand, is there much meaning to be found in words nearly five hundred years old?

Shakespeare has almost taken the position of the comedically misunderstood offside rule in football, something that all agree is terribly important but cannot explain what it means.

Arrows and Traps are a small, London based theatre company who are challenging the way in which Shakespeare is both perceived and performed by cunningly adapting it to better suit a modern audience.

Set up by Ross McGregor and Will Pinchin, their aim was to form a repertory company that specialised in bringing Shakespeare back into the popular mainstream entertainment market.

As Ross put it: The biggest obstacle is not the language, it’s so many productions involving actors who don’t fully understand what they’re saying, productions will end up turning people off because the language is incomprehensible.

“There’s nothing wrong with the Shakespeare part, it’s timeless, bottomless and beautiful, we just take the time to tune our ears back into it.”

Earlier this year they put on a stunning adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, which saw the narrative turned on its head with slovenly man-children being groomed for marriage by despairing mothers.

The change was explained by Company Director Ross McGregor, who said: “Taming of the Shrew always struck me as quite a controversial play for modern audiences. Like Merchant of Venice, they’re both problematic in their final moments.

“Merchant can’t be a comedy in a post-holocaust society, and Shrew has “that speech” in the last scene where its strongest character completely submits to the dominance and superiority of her lunatic husband.

“There’s no mileage in taking a confident, forthright, outspoken woman and breaking her will,that’s not funny.”

So how to turn a play which is routinely pilloried by modern critics for it’s outdated themes into something more enjoyable to a modern audience? By wondering what happens if Kate is a man.

The Taming of the Shrew, Arrows and Traps 3 - Davor Torvarlaza (1)-min

Bianco being led astray.

Ross expanded on this idea, saying; “What if he’s an angry slob of a man, drinks too much, still at home when he’s pushing 35, shouting, screaming, being violent towards his mother – maybe that guy should be tamed?”

The outcome of this novel idea was, at least in my opinion, a rousing success with the updated dynamic of a mournful mother attempting to civilise her loutish son ringing much truer than the classic representation.

The Taming of the Shrew, Arrows and Traps 2 - Davor Torvarlaza (1)-min

A hapless Kajetano being tamed

However, unsatisfied with adapting one of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays, the company has moved swiftly on to cover one of his goriest, Titus Andronicus.

One of Shakespeare’s lesser known works, Titus contains14 killings, nine of them on stage, six severed limbs, a rape , a live burial, a case of insanity and one of cannibalism, an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, according to Professor Clark Hulse.
However, rather than capitalise on the visceral brutality of the play Ross felt that, much like Taming, Titus would benefit from a different approach.

He said: “Many directors have centred upon the violent spectacle of the play’s darker moments,of which there are quite a few, seemingly with the goal of creating a 450 year old lost Tarantino film.

Titus 4-min

Nothing Tarantino-esque to be seen here.

For us it was very important to make this story as human as possible. Titus, for me, is the story of a man learning through suffering how to be a better father, and a mother coping with the death of her son.”

Yet more than show the show the struggles of scheming rival, the play also highlights problems within society as a whole and it’s reception throughout history has repeatedly shown this.

From it’s general popularity at the time of publication, Titus widely fell out of favour during the 17th Century as audiences could not connect the barbarity of the play with the gentility of their surroundings.

It was not until the early 20th century that the play began to gain popularity, possibly as a reaction to the large scale brutality of the First World War.

The Taming of the Shrew, Arrows and Traps 6 - Davor Torvarlaza-min

However the play’s ability to parallel modern life has changed little even in today’s world, as Ross explained: “We live in a world where civil unrest is forever on the boil, we have extremist groups becoming prolific in the mainstream arena – and we’re continually confronted with incredibly barbaric actions against civilians broadcast on a global platform.

“Perhaps most troubling though for me is that pre-meditated acts of violence and massacre are no longer shocking but almost routine.

“There is a cycle emerging, first with a violent act, then an unleashing of public response ever-compressed into 140 characters, the world’s leaders on camera with their platitudes, but nothing changes and within seemingly a month we repeat the whole thing again.”

Given the recent events in the USA over the past couple of weeks, where a trio of school shootings took the live of a dozen people, it isn’t hard to see what Ross is referring to.

When asked about whether their adaptation will be referencing current events Ross was realistic, saying: “In a way it’s almost impossible not to.

“The clearest parallel to ancient Rome is probably modern America. Their sense of civilised superiority in their need to spread their culture and governing style across the planet in direct conflict with their almost medieval lack of internal gun control.

“I don’t mean to be harsh on America, but more and more I do get the sense that we’re witnessing the slow death of a super power.

“Our Titus certainly takes something from the modern world whilst doffing our caps to the ancient one.

“It’s not our world, but we wanted to make some recognisable parallels, and some things like Pig-Gate were just too good not to mention.”

Despite the play’s allusions to the modern world, it’s central structure remains very much intact, Ross said: “Titus operates on two levels, firstly on the political – civil unrest, racism, tyranny, the lure and corruption of power, but also in the home – the role of the parent, the pressure of family unity, and the consequences of sibling rivalry.

“You also have the modern concern of home-grown revenge, how many times will a man be assaulted, robbed, threatened and hurt before he loses faith in legal justice and buys a shotgun? How far do you go to protect and avenge your family?What happens to justice when war smashes through the front wall of your house?”

Titus Andronicus opens at the New Wimbledon Theatre Studio on October 20th until November 14th

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