There’s gravity beneath the gore: Hart House Theatre unleashes Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Bailey Green as Lavinia, David Mackett as Titus (photo: Scott Gorman)

Hart House Theatre has just launched its final play of the season, Titus Andronicus, with David Mackett in the title role. Director James Wallis promises that the production will be a “bloody good time” — and audiences should certainly understand they will be getting it in buckets. Titus is a staple of the literary canon, as much for its inventive and epic violence as for its status as an example of the popular Revenge-Tragedy genre, birthed by Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Yet it is not widely taught in university English classrooms. Even Northrop Frye did not include it in his famous Shakespeare course at the University of Toronto or his subsequent lecture-turned-book Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. And the Stratford Festival last staged it during the 2011 season, after an 11-year interval. So this Hart House Theatre production is a scarce opportunity – first, to see Titus; and second, to consider the how and the why behind its blood-bathetic notoriety.

Scholars have long debated whether the play is Shakespeare’s attempt at Revenge Tragedy or a satire of it. While Titus is Mr Mackett and Mr Wallis’ debut project at Hart House Theatre, both are frequent interpreters of Shakespeare. Mr Wallis is Co-Artistic Director of indie theatre company Shakespeare BASH’d and a 3-time Assistant Director at the Stratford Festival. And Mr Mackett has performed roles in multiple tragedies and comedies at Shakespeare BASH’d and with other companies. Given their experience and versatility, both offer a nuanced position in this debate. Mr Mackett notes that, as one of Shakespeare’s early works, Titus is generally accepted as being his first attempt at writing a Tragedy or “Revenge” play. He suspects Shakespeare was heavily influenced by plays that were popular at the time. He is unsure about going so far as to call it a satire – though he acknowledges that the play contains a lot of “black humour”, and confirms that some of the acts of violence can elicit “both screams and laughter.”

Actor-Director James Wallis (photo courtesy of Hart House Theatre)

Mr Wallis is more definitive, averring that Titus is at once generic and satirical. “I know how much of a cop-out that seems, but it’s true,” he insists. “I think Shakespeare was attracted to the Revenge Tragedy genre because it was popular (and therefore lucrative), and it provided, dramaturgically, an opportunity to create interesting characters and situations.” That said, he maintains that Shakespeare was never comfortable in any confining genre, and therefore started finding ways to undermine, or cast aside, the common tropes of the genre. For instance, the outsider Aaron the Moor (played by Shawn Lall) is “built of Machiavellian signifiers but also a profound imagination.” He is deeply affected by his son and would put his own life on the line to protect him. And Titus himself, though at times a typical avenger, is always searching, tearing open his imaginative forces to discover more about himself through sorrow and grief. “It’s actually Revenge (the idea and act of) that closes him up again, making him kill his daughter in the process (in my opinion),” Mr Wallis offers. “Revenge brings upon conclusion but no consolation; therefore, Shakespeare seemed to distrust it and possibly satirize it, or subvert the genre that propped it up.”

The near-ceaseless succession of violence in the play – mutilations, dismemberment, decapitations, floggings and even cannibalism – is not for the faint-hearted. “What is interesting in Titus is that each act of revenge seems to be more horrific than the one done previously,” Mr Mackett notes. “Titus was wildly popular with Elizabethan audiences, mostly because of play’s violence and the gore. In that respect, the theme of ‘revenge begets revenge’ is continually played out, so there’s more there than just violence for the sake of violence/entertainment.” Mr Wallis adds that the mood of the play is violent and bloody, but to the characters, it is never unreasonable. He speculates that the amount of violence would have been more or less on par with other plays of the period, and wonders whether Shakespeare may have been trying to keep up in the “arms race of blood and guts.” He concludes wryly that Shakespeare certainly didn’t “overween in all”.

Shawn Lall as Aaron, Shalyn McFaul as Tamora (photo: Scott Gorman)

So why Titus, and why now? As discussed, the creativity of the violence borders on the grotesque. Interestingly, Mr Wallis makes the artistic choice to “represent” – rather than cart in by the bucketload – the blood required to stage the play: “I’m more in the camp of representational, but with a twist,” he hints. (As an aside, Yukio Ninagawa’s Japanese 2006 language production represented the blood with red ribbons.) Regardless of how graphic the treatment, does this play speak directly to our contemporary appetite and tolerance for violence? The popularity of TV shows like Breaking Bad, Godless, Hell on Wheels, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead (to name a scant few of an endless-seeming list) reflects our relish for violence as entertainment. Does this predilection for depictions of violence suggest that we are as barbaric as the society of the play – especially given the real violence perpetrated routinely in schools and houses of worship across our “civilized” world? “As an audience member now, I think the idea of how violence both disgusts and entices us is something I definitely wanted to explore through this production,” Mr Wallis affirms. “Because we are, in many ways, desensitized to violence in popular media, Titus can seem like familiar ground, but to me, it’s what the violence does to Lavinia [played by Bailey Green] and Titus, in particular, that makes the drama of the play come alive and challenges our expectations of gratuitous violence.”

Though a Roman from a society that considered itself to be the height of civilization, Titus has been desensitized by forty years of war, and is no less bloody-minded and outrageously violent than Tamora the Goth (played by Shalyn McFaul). “Titus has found himself at a crossroads at the beginning of the play,” Mr Wallis explains. “His family has been decimated by war. Violence and death have inured in him a sense of both superiority and loss. He has duty, but his own pathos seeps through.” Mr Mackett adds that Titus’ many violent acts, have “always been associated with honour. To him, Rome is a civilization built on honour. When he allows Tamora’s eldest child to be sacrificed, he views it as an honourable and justified act.” Therein, says Mr Wallis, lies the rub. The Andronicus family are “held up as pillars of intelligence and honour, yet they bring about the entire Revenge Plot of the play by killing Alarbus for sacrificial reasons – “an anachronism by Shakespeare because Rome never sacrificed humans.”

Shalyn McFaul as Tamora, Tristan Claxton as Saturninus, David Mackett as Titus (photo: Scott Gorman)

Alongside its surfeit of violence, Titus is anomalous in its treatment of gender. There are just two female roles, and both are extremes: Lavinia is a victim, and Tamora an extreme aggressor. How does this resonate when we look through the lens of current struggles over privilege, position and power, amidst our lurching movement toward gender parity? For starters, Mr Wallis’ interpretation makes way for 9 female actors playing different roles in the play’s society. His decision to cross-cast is rooted in the belief that “there are so many great actresses out there, and we should make more opportunities for them to bring these characters to life.” He acknowledges casting must be done in “responsible and considerate ways”, though this is “problematic” in Titus. His goal in cross-casting was to “create relationships that make sense in a relevant way to now”- and through  them, to pose important questions: “If Bassianus is a woman, what does her not being chosen to be emperor (though arguably more qualified) say about Titus, and about the society that rejects her? What is Act 2 Scene 4 like with Marcus (a woman, played by Annie MacKay) finding Lavinia after she has been raped and mutilated? How does her reaction shape this highly poetic and problematic speech about her?”

And what of the original two female roles –  Lavinia and Tamora – who still dominate the play? They show a divide in action and intent. Both are seeking solace in a world dominated by tradition and male violence. Tamora, though violent and vengeful, attempts to protect her child from death. Lavinia, though graceful and innocent, is a participant in shaming Tamora for her relationship to the outsider, Aaron. And while egalitarian casting provides opportunity for more actors, modern sensibilities leave stiff challenges for those who actually win the parts: “As an actor, it’s incumbent on me to play the circumstances that the playwright has given me,” says Mr Mackett. “As an actor, I can’t pass judgement on a character  or label them.  As Titus, I can – but not as David. [Titus] says and does some awful things, and it’s my job as an actor to figure out the motivation behind his actions, and believe in them.”

David Mackett as Titus Andronicus (photo: Scott Gorman)

As the blood runs and the body count rises, it is abundantly clear that Titus the Roman is no less bloody-minded and outrageously violent than the so-called “savage” Tamora the Goth: “Rome as a society is supposed to be above ‘barbarism’ (that is mentioned many times),” explains Mr Wallis, “but they seem as uncivilized and divided as any Goth society could ever hope to be. I think the difference is apparent in the play.” Whether you view the play as tragedy or satire, this collapse of would-be distinction between antagonists rings uncomfortably true today. As they view the on-stage carnage, should Toronto audiences in 2018 be thinking in terms of literal violence — bodily harm and physical death — or metaphorical violence, such as insinuation, social and reputational violence and career-killing? Both, assert Mr. Mackett and Mr. Wallis. Mr Mackett points out bluntly that murder in the name of honour is no less murder: “We still have honour killings today and endless cycles of violence throughout the world, so yes, I think the themes in this play still ring true in our modern world.” Mr Wallis is confident that Toronto audiences will see the play literally and metaphorically: “To me, that’s what makes Shakespeare’s plays so profound: they live in and out of the conscious and unconscious all the time.”

Given the relevance of Titus’ themes – and the apparent lack of need for splash gear – this chance to experience this rarely-staged, diversely-conceived production is opportune and welcome. It is safe to assert that you will not be bored for even a moment during the performance  . . . and that, lurking among the visual horrors lie rich and resonant questions that will fill the end-of-play “Talkback”, and then the walk or drive home.

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What: Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare; Directed by James Wallis

Featuring: Tristan Claxton (Saturninus – oldest son of the late Emperor of Rome), Megan Miles (Bassianus – youngest child of the late Emperor of Rome), David Mackett (Titus Andronicus – Roman General), Annie MacKay (Marcus Andronicus – his sister), Laura Meadows (Aemilius – a Tribune/Nurse to Tamora), Dylan Evans (Lucius – son of Titus), Nathaniel Kinghan (Quintus – son of Titus), Melanie Leon (Martia – daughter of Titus), Theodor Iordache (Mutius – son of Titus/Caius – Titus’ Kinsmen), Bailey Green (Lavinia – daughter of Titus), Laura Darby (Young Lucius – son to Lucius/Clown, a narrator), Meghan Fowler (Publius – child of Marcus/Alarbus – child to Tamora), Ezera Beyene (Sempronius – Titus’ Kinsmen), Shalyn McFaul (Tamora – Queen of the Goths), Felix Beauchamp (Demetrius – son to Tamora), Thomas Nyhuus (Chiron – son to Tamora), Shawn Lall (Aaron the Moor – Tamora’s lover), Cassidy Sadler (Severita)

When: March 2-10, 2018; running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (includes one intermission)

  • Student Matinee: Tues., March 6 at 12 pm
  • Postshow Talkbacks: Sat., March 3 and Thurs., March 8
  • Preshow Artist Chat: Sat., March 10 at 1 pm

Where: Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, ON

Info and and 416.978.8849

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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