Review: Titus ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review: Titus

Melbourne Festival #9

Titus, after William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Created by Kuno Bakker, Manja Topper, Oscar van Woensel, Gillis Biesheuval, Sara De Roo, Ceon Jongsma and Anne Karin Ten Bosch. Translated into Dutch by Manja Topper and Juno Bakker and back into English by Paul Evans. Lighting and sound by Rene Rood and Iwan Van Vlieberghe. Performed by Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper, Kuno Bakker, Gillis Biesheuval and Sara de Roo. Dood Paard @ the Malthouse Workshop until October 27.

Titus Andronicus is the 16th century version of a splatter movie. Clearly inspired by Seneca, Shakespeare – then a relatively young playwright – enthusiastically stirred practically every gruesome element of classical revenge tragedy into the pot. This play has everything: murder, mutilation, extreme rape, revenge, adultery, cannibalism, political plots and blood in bucketloads.

In fact, so extreme is the ultraviolence that Harold Bloom said it was impossible to take seriously, and suggested that the best possible production would be directed by Mel Brooks. It’s kind of intriguing to imagine what Bloom might have made of Dood Paard’s attack on it: I’d personally put a bet each way. All the same, in this spirited adaptation there are moments that Mel Brooks might have been proud of.

But, almost miraculously, Dood Paard simultaneously invoke the grief and horror of this luridly coloured play, reminding us that – like Shakespeare himself, who lived in a society where bloody public executions were entertainment for the hoi polloi – we live in a world in which acts of extreme violence are not as fantastic as we might like to think. Ask the citizens of Darfur or Chechnya. Human beings are every bit as capable of horrible actions as they have ever been.

In Titus, the violence is inescapably male and sexual. The women are either - like Lavinia, Titus’s raped and mutilated daughter - victims of lust for both sex or political power, or - like the Goth Queen Tamora - vengeful manipulators of the action. The patriarchal inheritance of violence, from father to son, is made brutally clear. The mechanism of revenge, activated by Titus’ sacrifice of the conquered Goth prince Alarbus on his triumphal return to Rome, proceeds inexorably to a stage littered with corpses. Some of them cooked.

Dood Paard intitially adapted Shakespeare’s text in Dutch. For this season, we’re getting that adaptation – a clean, swift and intelligent take that surprisingly preserves much of the original poetry – translated back into English. While we’re not getting Shakespeare straight, we are definitely getting the play: all five acts, complete with classical references (they include a joke about Horace and Latin quotations) are followed faithfully. As is Shakespeare's rather confronting racism, in the person of the irredeemably evil Aaron the Moor.

The approach is as simple as it gets. On a stage crowded with a miscellany of lounge furniture, the five performers literally tell us the play, swiftly describing the setting, pointing fingers to actors and naming their characters as they take on different parts as required. The performers are dressed in everyday clothes that are adapted casually as required: when Lavinia’s hands are cut off, she wears a man’s shirt with the hanging cuffs dipped into red paint.

This loose-limbed theatricality is both compelling and flexible. It permits a double view of the play: a meta-theatrical and ironic awareness of its provenance as a work of art, and a feeling understanding of the realities that are imagined within it. When Tamora (Sara De Roo) pleads for the life of her son, or when Titus (Kuno Bakker) spies his mutilated daughter, their performances generate genuine pathos and horror.

The text swings between a pared down, direct take on Shakespearean poetry and the language of popular culture. In a moment that effectively catapults the sadism of Ancient Rome into the present day, Tamora’s thuggish sons quote Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man (thank you Mr Boyd) as they eye Lavinia, preparing to rape her. The bracing colloquialism also provides moments of fine black comedy. Just before the final act (when most of the protagonists meet their bloody demise), there is a lewd dance to the blasting disco beat of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive that is pure genius.

As in their other festival piece MedEia, the collaborators offer up a version of classical tragedy that is deeply intelligent about the form, at once questioning its formal propositions and exploiting its power. But perhaps what is most attractive about Dood Paard is how the company returns to the basics of theatre, the performer and the text. Titus is above all an exemplary demonstration of theatrical story-telling, and a forceful reminder of the naked power of words.

Picture: Dood Paard’s Titus. From left: Sara De Roo, Gillis Biesheuvel, Kuno Bakker and Manja Topper Photo: Sanne Peper Performers

1 comment:

xofro said...

I loved this work, and, after being unexpectedly beguiled by their version of medEia, Dood Paard was a Festival hit for me. Again, I was nervous by the seemingly anti-dramatic set-up. Again they told the story, with humour, pathos and outstanding humanity, in a captivating and involving way. Bravo!