Posts Tagged ‘modern shakespeare’

Cooper’s London

July 27, 2017

Theater/Broadcast

A Tight Andronicus  

I cannot understand why Titus Andronicus has such a terrible reputation. Perhaps it’s because so far I have only seen good and interesting productions? Which suggests to me that there is something stageworthy about it even if it doesn’t read all that brilliantly on the page.

At one level, of course, it’s like watching those contemporary action thrillers or horror films with lots of blood and events. This new production at the RSC in Stratford, updated to a contemporary world on the edge of street riots, embraces (to a degree) that kind of Summer Blockbuster approach. It opens with a prologue of alarums and excursions by a contemporary mob and police, swiftly underscoring the theme that the violence and emotional savagery of humanity are still being played out in the contemporary worldEgypt or China or Venezuela or Syria, for instance?

Director Blanche McIntyre deploys a battery of shock effects and line readings that at times, and rightly, provoke uneasy, spontaneous laughter from the audience. Not that the Grand Guignol is played for laughs. The actors present characters that are believable, if grotesque or evil, and are all the more convincing because of the updating of the visuals to a contemporary world that resonates with echoes of everyone from Erdogan to Asad. Further, the play ties in neatly with the RSC’s “Roman Season “ in which they are doing productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus as well as Titus Andronicus to show how the plays work when given a thematic context.  The good news is that the four plays are being broadcast to cinemas all over the world; you’ll also be able to catch up with them on DVD in the near future and see what I’m talking about.t So you won’t have to go to Stratford-upon-Avon or, later, to London’s Barbican Theatre, to see these shows and decide for yourself, because the RSC now brings its season to you, wherever you are. 

Of course it isn’t quite the same as being in the theatre. But these live broadcasts do capture the sense of occasion. While you are not in a fixed seat with a fixed viewpoint, the broadcast director and cameramen are choosing varied viewpoints for you, and they have become increasingly skilled at this. The compensations of being able to experience the actual new production in real time and see the actors in close-ups definitely balances the disadvantage of not actually being there. So let us hear three cheers for this new dispensation! The RSC Roman Season has already broadcast its exemplary Julius Caesar and extremely fine Antony and CleopatraCoriolanus is to be broadcast on 11 October 2017. And if you miss any of these plays, they will appear on DVD; you can catch up with them later. Another good thing about our era is simply that these productions are being preserved.

The RSC, with this kind of integrated approach to the four plays, and its commitment to widening its audience through new technological means, is enjoying a very good period at the moment under the directorship of Gregory Doran. When you see this season’s plays, each one stands on its own but there are echoes across them of a shared central vision, a core, that makes a point about our world today and what we are seeing on the the news. The news cameras are right there on stage for the big public moments of Titus Andronicus throughout. And the world of a mythical Ancient Rome is just as much a paradigm for our current displaced but suppressed violence, anger, and our populist denial of reason and compassion as are the clips we witness every day from, say, the Middle East.

I recommend this Titus Andronicus very highly (in whatever medium you can access), as you have probably guessed by now. For a start, it’s an extremely intelligent interpretation that’s very sensitive to subtext, and the text is presented with utmost clarity.There’s not a weak performance in the cast. David Troughton  (King Lear at Stratford not long ago) brings out a quality in Titus that is a kind of early, simpler draft of Lear. He begins with immense self-assurance and lack of pity for the plight of Tamora’s son, whom he puts to death. And there’s the rub! He’s tired, he’s old, he’s vengeful, he cannot see beyond the rituals of Rome and appeasement of his gods.  At the start, Andronicus only slenderly knows himself and doesn’t seem to see that his actions might have uncontrollable consequences. Nor will he allow himself to become Emperor, though the people want it. It’s his voice that tips the balance into rousing the crowd to appoint Saturninus as Emperor; it’s therefore his shirking of responsibility that causes so much chaos and damage to ensue. At the beginning, like Lear, he cannot see beyond his entitlements, his power and his beliefs. Does it make you think of anyone in the world of contemporary politics, by any chance? Clearly Shakespeare was already contemplating that the fault was not in our stars but in ourselves. McIntyre’s production suggests this strongly. 

Martin Hutson is a riveting, neurotic, lustful and dangerously self-inflated Saturninus, a modern-day City banker or trader, a Stalin whose fear of losing power makes him paranoid; Nia Gwynne is terrifyingly manipulative, fearsome and predatory as Tamora, as well as bruisingly moving and self-justifying in her anguish. There is a convincing, effective Aaron played by Stefan Adegbola, whose credo is that if he ever did a good deed he regrets it. And yet, when it comes to it, he loves the baby son that he fathers on Tamora and strives to save it. But is this unexpected paternal love or simply projection of his own ego onto the child? The strength of this reading is that we are left with several ambiguities. Aaron comes across as a very early draft of Iago, of course: unfathomable, seemingly motivated only by his own evil.

The production is as bloody as it needs to be (given the text), and visually impressive as it moves about the design outside a contemporary bank of glass and steel created by Robert Innes Hopkins. The set enables a fluid, direct staging, and Tim Sutton’s music is used to great effect;  I was frequently moved by Hannah Morrish as Lavinia and thought the pacing of the play was always superb. Will Bliss plays a clown who must have been one of Shakespeare’s earliest creations as a stark, gasp-making contrast to the unfolding tragedy and mayhem; and Patrick Drury was particularly fine as Marcus Andronicus. The younger generationespecially David Burnett as Quintus, Tom Lorcan as Martius, Dharmesh Oatel as Bassanius, Jon Tarcy as Alarbus, Sean Hart as Demetrius and Luke MacGregor as Chironwere all praiseworthy, as was Marcello Walton in more than one part. 

The great strength and pleasure of the RSC is its ensemble work, the rehearsing until everyone is completely part of a strong unit with one purpose, to find and communicate the soul of the play. In this case, the achievement is all the more impressive because it’s not one of Shakespeare’s best plays and he probably did not contribute more than a few speeches in the first act; yet one is suitably disturbed to see its portrayal of this dark and sometimes uncontrollably brutal side of the human psyche.

Titus Andronicus is playing in repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 2 September and at the Barbican Theatre in London from 7 December 2017 until 19 January 2018. It will be broadcast live from the stage on 9 August 2017.

To experience a first-rate production of this early Shakespeare play and discover its often-disputed and underrated merits, check the web for the broadcast schedule: https://www.rsc.org.uk/titus-andronicus/in-cinemas


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