Review: Anatomy Titus, Fall of Rome ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Review: Anatomy Titus, Fall of Rome

Anatomy Titus: Fall of Rome: A Shakespeare Commentary, by Heiner Müller, translated by Julian Hammond, and directed by Michael Gow. Designed by Robert Kemp, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition and sound design by Brett Collery. With John Bell, Robert Alexander, Thomas Campbell, Peter Cook, Scott Johnson, Nathan Lovejoy, Steven Rooke, Christopher Sommers and Timothy Walter. Bell Shakespeare and Queensland Theatre Company @ the CUB Malthouse until December 6.

Heiner Müller, the defining post-war playwright of the East German stage, understood power. Its machinations were the obsession of his art and his life. It's easy to see why he was so fascinated by Shakespeare who, like Müller, saw theatre and history as two sides of the same coin. He wrote three major adaptations of Shakespeare's work - Macbeth, Hamletmachine and Anatomy Titus - among a slew of other works that grappled with classic texts.

Müller's motives in approaching classical works were never pure, and expressed his intellectual and ideological restlessness, a certain necessary lack of respect. "A classical literature," he said in 1975, "is first of all a literature of a class". Just as his admiration of Brecht turned him into Brecht's most excoriating critic, so he approached the classics in order to subject them to explosive critique. His version of Hamlet was, as Müller said, "the shrunken head of the Hamlet tragedy", splintering Hamlet's subjectivity in order to expose the "something rotten" in contemporary society. And his version of Titus, which cuts the play and interpolates the text with commentary, exposes the blood-soaked, gratuitous violence of contemporary empire.

Shakespeare's original was an early text, heavily influenced by Seneca. It's gore-drenched schlock, so lurid with ultra-violence - rape, mutilation, murder, cannibalism - that the bloodiness becomes ludicrous. Müller's adaptation historicises Shakespeare's splatterfest. In Anatomy Titus, written in the shadow of the CIA-led coup against Chilean president Allende, the exploited colonies of empire - the Germanic Goths and Africa - take their revenge against Rome, even as Rome, decadent and swollen with power, betrays its own.

After the geopolitical adventures of the past decade, its contemporary aptness ought to be obvious. The amorality of power is here written starkly, a text of violence that inscribes itself on the bodies of its victims and leaves in its wake a pile of corpses. There is no lesson to be learned in this violence, no message to be taken (as Müller said - quite honestly I think - in a 1990 interview, "I'm no ideologue. I use Marxism as a material, in the same way I use a Shakespeare play... this becomes form and is valid as such.")

In the same breath, Müller speaks about the absurd obscenity of the first world's treatment of what was then the third world. His insistence that he was only interested in his writing often is taken as cynicism: in fact it is a form of idealism, an aggressive rejection of the contemporary insistence on looking for meaning behind a work, which he thought a sign of decadence. One cannot escape the political critique of Müller's work: at the same time, to think that political critique is the point is to miss the point entirely.

In Müller's Titus, we can't but be aware that the stage violence, however excessive or ludicrous, has literal analogies in the Middle East, in South-East Asia and India, in the mountains of the Caucasus and Pakistan. No playwright's imagination, not even Shakespeare's, outdoes human inventiveness in actual cruelty. But Müller's primary concern was with the politics of artistic form. "Perhaps Godard formulated it best," he said in a 1987 interview. "The task is not to make political movies, but to make movies politically. What is political is the treatment of the material. In other words, it's the form, not the content. That's the problem with young radical movements when they deal with art. What they end up with is philistinism."

Eager revolutionaries aren't the problem in this production, which is rather an exercise in muting Müller's formal radicality. All the same, it's good to see Bell Shakespeare tackling this challenging text, which is a welcome shift from its earlier, shonkily contemporised productions. Julian Hammond's translation, which includes a good deal of the original Shakespeare, is a tough realisation of Müller's savage and excoriating lyricism. (As an aside, it would be interesting to know whether
Müller's play translated Shakespeare's English into contemporary German, or left it in a pastiche of, as it were, Elizabethan German - each would have a very different effect). But you have to listen hard to hear the language through the noise of Michael Gow's production.

Watching this very uneven show, I often felt as if I were witnessing a copy of something, a production that goes half-way. It is as if it begins with the best of intentions, only to waver at the sticking point: it has its moments, but they founder beneath a wider formal uncertainty. When you enter the theatre, the stylistic language looks promising enough: Robert Kemp's set is a simple box, white walls smeared with red. Back stage is a wall topped with books, the intellectual fruit of civilisation, which will be torn and besmirched with blood, and in the centre is an industrial barrel which, we soon find out, is full of gore. The all-male cast is dressed in contemporary casual clothes and, as with Dood Paard's meta-theatrical adaptation of Titus at last year's Melbourne Festival, assign each other their different roles.

Even though I know the play quite well, I found the first ten minutes deeply confusing. Müller dispenses with the first act, replacing it with a bald summary of events, but this is rushed through in the telling. I was so busy keeping up with the chorus work that nothing fixed in my mind. Once I'd sorted out the plot, I still had problems negotiating a mish-mash of theatrical intentions. If the production is so stripped back, why have herald's trumpets suddenly ringing out in isolated scenes? Wherefore lighting changes that transform the naked stage into more conventional theatrical spaces? Why does the Emperor (Nathan Lovejoy) sound like someone from Monty Python's Life of Brian?

There's no doubt (believe it or not) that Müller is funny. His humour is, however, blacker than the inside of a cat, corrosive and subversive. He's a specialist in the kind of laughter that arises from a literal apprehension of catastrophe, from the felt knowledge that there are wounds beyond the help of therapy or redemption. He would be the first to reject a holy reverence towards his texts. All the same, I find it very difficult to think of his work as camp.

But an undeniable campness runs through this production, from the Emperor's lisp to Lavinia's lipsticked pouts. Peter Cook's portrayal of the vengeful Goth queen Tamora, on the other hand, doesn't press so hard on gendered stereotypes, and is the more effective for it. I'm not sure why the decision to have an all-male cast should result in such posturings: one reason given, which suggests some of the problems in the direction, is that the rape and mutilation of Lavinia (Thomas Campbell) is less hard to take if she is played by a man. A major effect is to empty the play of its dark lusts; they become a joke, merely an exercise in pushing the boundaries of taste.

The treatment of the African slave Aaron (a bravura performance by Timothy Walter) pierces through the camp to something more interesting. It is played in crude blackface: when we first see Walker, he is wearing a gorilla mask, and the racial representations become successively more outrageous. Aaron's baby is even represented by a gollywog. Shakespeare's play is nakedly racist, and in this production it's amplified to acute discomfort.

However, even here the effect draws back from reflection on its larger implications - the wealthy world's exploitation of Africa, which is driven in its abjection to nihilistic revenge - to a more personally-sized racism. The action is divorced from its larger political implications and historical context - the very aspects
highlighted in Müller's text - and the disturbance stirred by the racism becomes that much more manageable.

The cast, as so often in Bell Shakespeare productions, is uneven; and this text, even more than conventional Shakespeare, demands actors who can deal with complex language. This perhaps accounts in part for my feeling in many scenes that I couldn't quite grasp the words. John Bell plays Titus, and for the first third stalks around the stage as stiff as a board. Once Titus goes crazy, you begin to see why Bell is so respected as a Shakespearean actor: he eats up the role with gluttonous relish.

But all this beautiful language led me back to wondering why, if "poetry is murder", as Müller claims in the play, we have so much lovely enunciation of it. It's as if its beauty remains, at the core, an unquestioned good. I found myself longing for the language to be somehow assaulted in the performances, rather than preserved intact in the midst of mayhem.

In short, Anatomy Titus seems neither one thing nor 'tother. It's caught uncomfortably between radicality and convention, and ultimately blurs to something uncomfortably close to jolly japes about mutilation. In the chaos of gesture, Müller's formal inquiry is obscured, reduced to the merely sensational: punches are pulled everywhere.

It's Gow's misfortune to have mounted this play hard on the heels of Barrie Kosky's potent evocation of Greek tragedy in The Trojan Women, and with Dood Paard's brilliant and funny realisation of Titus still in recent memory. For all their different approaches, both the earlier productions were exemplary in their wrought simplicity, in how each production employed only the elements that were necessary to its purpose. What emerged was a burnished lucidity, a deep lustre in which the original text burned with renewed relevance. The most crucial lack in this production of Anatomy Titus is a concomitant sense of artistic necessity.

Picture: John Bell as Titus in Anatomy Titus.


Kate Foy said...

Thanks for the review. I enjoyed your commentary on Muller's commentary.

For the record Anatomy Titus, Fall of Rome a Shakespeare Commentary is a co-production between Queensland Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare.

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, Kate. As is sometimes obvious, I could do with a sub; but luckily readers swiftly correct me.

Jana said...

Interesting. I have just seen a widely-lauded disaster, and a confusing tour de force, up here in Sydney, and am drowning in unwritten reviews, all notes in notebooks.

Until I get back to my own computer, desk, books, time to write, a few things I'd like to ask you. I haven't seen Dood Pard's Titus, last year. How was it different, and how did it work better? How did it work with the audience, with the text?

The other thing: Susan Sontag calls Titus Andronicus a work of camp. Do you think the Muller/Bell Sh production consciously agreed with Sontag, or was it just a coincidence? Does it matter?

I found the production, frankly, not very serious. Not in the sense of larrikin, irreverent, blah, but camp, disengaged. However, I didn't think of that as a flaw. But I'm wondering if I am correctly interpreting your angle. What is the effect you would want from Anatomy Titus? How does Bell Sh not achieve it?

(I hope this doesn't sound like a cross-examination. I am very curious to know how you perceived that production.)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jana

If you click through to my review of Dood Paard's Titus (link in this review), you'll see what I thought of it.

I actually think Titus (by Shakespeare) is camp. (See previous review). I have difficulty in thinking that Muller is camp. To my mind he's doing something else: that is, literalising the violence that is so excessive in Titus, and turning it into a commentary on extreme (and actual) violence now. It doesn't mean that it isn't funny, but that isn't camp. To quote Sontag: "Camp is generous... It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it is not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.)" Muller is far too sardonic for this - when he's malicious, I think he actually is.

I couldn't say what Michael Gow's intentions were. I'm sure he's perfectly aware of Sontag.

Theo Strasser said...

Hi Alison , I'm Theo Strasser trying to get your email address brother in law of Graham Henderson. I am a painter, done something people should see ...on now at Gallerysmith in Nth Melb. hopefully will catch up via email....see:

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Theo - of course I remember you! - you can email me on alisoncroggon at

Anonymous said...

I could have done without so much real or fake blood being used that the sound of the actor's shoes squelching in it drowned out the dialogue at times. Lucy Sussex

Jana said...

Maybe I didn't phrase my question right. I've read your review of Dood Pard many times. I was hoping for a comparison. How do they differ in what they try, what they achieve? How are Dood Pard "intelligent about the form" of classical tragedy, and how is Bell Sh not? It's really a question about the detail, missed or achieved. Was Titus connecting Shakespearean violence to today by using pop culture references, and was Bell's "divorced from its larger political implications" because it didn't? Why do you interpret it as a problem that the production is stripped back, but we have heralding trumpets?

I think I understand your angle. I would just like you to describe the differences in effect, in your reaction, to the two plays. To say that the theatre gives you something is usually to say it gives you what you were looking for. Whenever one feels unsatisfied with a production, it's a form of unfulfilled wish. I am interested.

James Waites said...

Hi Alison,

at last someone (you) has got their head around this complicated failure of a production. It certainly got the better of me. I think it's one of those shows that, to be addressed seriously, needs a long answer. You have covered considerable distance.

I agree with all you say. Among other thoughts that have come to me since I saw the show, I have settled on two key concerns.

The first is the lack of a consistent directorial aesthetic. You refer to this. Indeed one could go through the play in five minute slabs and highlight contradictions with slabs from elsewhere and end up with a bible-sized volume of damning evidence. Despite a promise of succinctness proffered in our introduction to the set, the production is a grab-bag of short-term solutions that, far too often, clash, contradict or undermine other decisions to follow.

The other is the very low-calibre standard of acting. I don't blame the cast members themselves. Who in these straightened times is going to turn down a gig? But the less experienced actors were out of their depth. You are spot on about the meaningless gobbledegook of the opening scene. The production squandered that vital opening phase where one is meant to establish a relationship with the audience. I thought, 'lazy acting' here we come; and on only a few occasions got passed that thought.

The more experienced actors appeared to be in another production. A much nicer, more typically Bell-Shakespearan one.

As for the notion of 'Camp, you are spot-on again. Sontag makes it clear that true Camp takes itself seriously. That's very different from 'poncing about' or being 'glib'. This is why you are right to say Shakespeare's original does have a 'camp' feel; where Muller, in another time and place, takes a much 'straighter' approach to the material - more overtly intellectual and political.

Thankyou Alison for putting your fine mind to this production. You've certainly helped me put some of my own thoughts in order. I hope I can sleep better, this production has really been bugging me.

Alison Croggon said...

Jana - the difference between the two productions is Heiner Muller. As you should have guessed, since most of my review discusses Muller's work, not Shakespeare's.

Dood Paard were "intelligent about the form" because they managed a production that at once took an ironic historical look at the sometimes creaky mechanisms of revenge tragedy (by how they exposed the textual dramaturgy in their performances) and also exploited the emotional power of tragedy. By including slang and pop culture references and through the transparency of their theatricality, they brought it into the colloquial world of the 21st century, and so too the emotional world of violence came to our times. Much the same as they did with their take on Medea.

Muller is doing something entirely different. I've quoted a fair bit from Muller in the review in order to sketch out his general approach, but if you really want to know what he does, you should read him. (You should read him anyway). Bell Shakespeare was doing Muller's Titus, not Shakespeare's. Muller is one of the most formally adventurous theatre writers of the late 20C, and my expectation is that a production would address his formal challenges. That's the expectation that, for me, this production failed. Unlike, say, a recent German version video installation based on Muller's Titus, which concentrated on the women in the play, which sounds most fascinating.

Thanks, James! Only too glad to be of help in your sleeping patterns...

Jen said...

I saw this tonight and I thought it was fantastic. I loved that fact that I wasn't able to grasp onto a particular show or style- that it kept changing and kept me on my feet. It made me inquisitive and want to know more. The people I was with didn't enjoy it so much because the simplistic style didn't stay for the entire production. What is wrong with that? Too often, our preconceptions ruin what can be a great night in the theatre. Why not go with what is presented rather than be disappointed by what we think we should've seen...
And the CAMPness you talk about, seemed to only be there in the first couple of scenes and fall away after that. I assumed it was a choice of the actors or director to play it like that because it certainly didn't RUN through the production to me.
Anyway I loved it and have come from arguing with my friends...
Thanks for your blog.

Anonymous said...

As much as I appreciate your thorough (if at times verbose and showy) commentary on
“Anatomy Titus – Fall of Rome” at the Malthouse recently I must take umbrage with some of your comments. I find your critique of the show’s visuals extremely shallow and limited. Why is it wrong for a visual world to be initially “stripped back” and then transform as the piece dictates visually? What is wrong with a stage that transforms from bare space into so called ”conventional theatrical space” (what the hell is that anyway?). If the artists’ that create the show deem it necessary to explore the visual motifs of the play through abstract sound, light and design then how does that differ it from a Robert Wilson piece or “Moving Target” for pity’s sake? Why should a piece always follow up on its initial presented picture and then take you comfortably to the end? I understand when you hate something- that’s just you – I’m sure that your many quibbles on story telling, language and performance have their merits. But I often find you in a terribly bias political landscape with your diatribe (e.g. The serpents teeth). I found your review of this show entirely predictable to your form – you are a product of the people you hang with and are very much influenced by the prevailing wind of a certain group of Australian theatre ”intelligentsia”. You hear something on the wright wind and you take the strong armed response and say it kant be done. I have no real faith in your response because you fail to see art as it really is and are really only in it to show how uber intelligent you are . I know you will never publish this and I wouldn’t want you to (if you did it would only be to hold me up to ridicule which I wouldn’t put past you, honestly). I just wanted you to know that sometimes you publish some insightful words and sometimes, like your poetry, you’re rubbish

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jen - that's one way to take it. The people who seem to have had problems with it seem to be those who are familiar with Heiner Muller's work.

And jeez, thanks Anon. No, I don't take comments down because they take issue with me, and will leave this there, even if it's ad hominem.

To those points I can answer: James Waites explores a bit further the kinds of problems I had with the confusions in the production. They aren't about consistency, but lack of focus. My real point is in the second last par of the review, and I'm not sure you've understood it. It's not about the "visuals".

As for the rest: well, you're free to think what you like, just as I am. I just wonder why you believe I can't be a "product" of my own thoughts and explorations, not just the people I "hang with", with whom, after all, I disagree often enough. Perhaps that possibility is unimaginable to you.

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree that I was attacking character rather than responding with reason. I also don't find it unimaginable that you are capable of free and independent thought. I just thought your review of this show seemed a little unnecessarily harsh in the light of your reviews other similar material and seemed unduly reflected against certain other works. I accept that your view is a product of as you say your own 'explorations' and artistic appreciation is as ever an individual process. I just think I saw something in this production that you didn't - and I'll leave at that.

Alison Croggon said...

If you disagree with me, Anon, or see something that I missed, why not do as others do, and simply put forward your own view? That's the invitation of this blog, after all.

I don't know why you thought my review "unnecessarily harsh" - do you mean that I like a "type" of theatre, and therefore should indiscriminately praise anything that fits the bill? I suppose that if I had extravagantly admired this show, you would have said that was totally predictable, too. I was, for example, quite critical of Moving Target (if you read what I actually wrote). That didn't mean, btw, that I didn't think it deeply interesting. I think my liking or disliking something is the least of it. If that was all I cared to do, what would be the point? (And while I'm on my "diatribe", I might as well point out that I have several less stressful and more gratifying outlets for my intellectual vanity than this blog).

When I go to the theatre, I attempt to look at each individual production on its own terms. In this case, I was looking at a production of a play by Heiner Muller, who happens to be a writer I particularly admire. Since I like his work, I've read quite a bit of it, and obviously that leads me to have certain ideas - rightly or wrongly - about what I think he's about. Those ideas are always arguable. If anyone cared to argue them, of course.

I think theatre is a broad church. It would be foolish - and would considerably limit my own pleasure - if I treated every production as if each of them sought to do exactly the same thing, as if a musical comedy were the same as a classical play or contemporary dance was just the same as cabaret. And I don't claim to be the last word, ever.

The one thing I do claim is that if I attend the theatre, I'll do my best to pay serious attention, and if I make some kind of judgment, I'll try to back it up with some thought-through argument. I don't always get things right, and if I make mistakes, I acknowledge them. And even when I loathe something, I try to be fair. I sometimes wish my own critics would pay me and my work similar courtesies. It would certainly be more interesting for me. But there we are.

Di said...

It's good to find this blog after seeing Titus yesterday. I did not know Muller's work. I found the play interesting and there were many things I liked about the production. In the end it excited my interest in the theatre and I'd like to know more about the playwright and his works. I'd like to read his play, especially as the commentaries (spoken into the descending microphone) more or less eluded me. Your review opened up possibilities about other ways the play might be presented and it would be interesting to see a more formal production with some more experienced actors (say Chris Stollery as Saturninus) and with women in the female roles.

On the other hand I liked the men as women, including the portrayal of Lavinia. She seemed bound in her mincing ways at first, then more cruely bound by her speechlessness after the rape. I also enjoyed the physicality of the acting, the staging, lighting and sound and JB's performance, especially as grief overtook the character.

I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing at times and kept asking myself why do I need to see all this violence? That question has stayed with me: why all this violence? It echoes in newstories -'glassing' for instance.

Reading the program notes later I found a quote from Muller which opened up a new way of reflecting on my experience in the theatre with his play. It says, '...the mind doesn't belong in the theatre, because then you don't have an actual experience. You can only have an experience when you're not judging something.' My struggle was partly about getting a message from the play or putting it into an intellectual category, but as it went on I gave myself over to the experience and that refreshed my feeling for theatre itself. Therefore, in my eyes, a good production, at least for me as a newcomer to the text.

May I also say I think Anonymous's comments were way over the top and that people who wish only to insult the reviewer ought to have their comments trashed.

Anonymous said...

a very fine and eloquent response Alison - I apologise, my comments were desperately out of order and terribly disrespectful - there's no real excuse except a mistaken sense of righteousness. I thank you for your balanced and 'to the point' statement of your philosophy - I appreciate your honesty.

Alison Croggon said...

Di - thanks for your post. And I'm really glad that you enjoyed the production, and particularly glad it made you interested in Muller. I hope you do follow up his work - it's worth it. The commentaries that eluded you are the political spine of the play, and I guess what I'm saying particularly follows from them.

You're quite right to point to that quote in the program. That feeling of having an experience is certainly true of some other productions I've seen of Muller's work, and I guess I was comparing those experiences to this one, which left me feeling "outside". One was a production of Medeamaterial, a post-apocalyptic version of Medea, which was put on by a Greek contemporary theatre company called - I think - the Attic Theatre. I saw that, oh, 15 years ago (they came here twice, first with an incredible production of The Bacchae). It was a formative experience for me, and would take me too long to describe, but I have never forgotten it. The other was a performance of Quartet, based on Les Liaison Dangereuses, which was put on in the foyer of the Playbox. Both of them hit me like a hammer. And if anything formed my expectations of this play - aside, that is, from Muller's writing - I guess those two productions did.

Anon, that's a handsome apology. And fully accepted.

Alison Croggon said...

PS: Refreshing my memory with some googling, I find it was the Attis Theatre that so impressed me, under the direction of Theodorus Terzopoulos. Some comments online on him here.