[box type=”info”] Note: This review contains mention of physical and sexual violence, including rape. [/box]
I sat in the Pit on Wednesday night, after receiving customary warnings from the producers about the graphic and sexually violent nature of what I was about to see, and settled into my seat in the front row. As I leafed through the program, I overheard another audience member murmur to a friend, “This is going to be a night of going too far.”
They were entirely correct.
“Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, and called “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written” by T. S. Eliot, is directed by Bryn Shaffer. While only in her second year, Shaffer held nothing back with this production.
The production opened with the anguished cries of first-year student, Sam Hodgkins-Sumner, as he lay on the floor, his stomach covered in blood.
By intermission, my dead body count was at 7.
Titus Andronicus, the man himself, was played by Thomas Jestin. Jestin commanded the audience, as each word he uttered was weighted down by tortured emotion and intensity. He was careful and controlled in his every motion from his erect posture to his constantly furrowed brow.
Initially a vision in a beautiful white sundress, Vicky Coo played Lavinia, daughter of Titus and betrothed of the Emperor’s brother. The character’s fall from graceful and articulate ingénue to bloody wretch was masterfully done. Regardless of Lavinia’s state, whether it be enamoured or anguished, Coo incited a strong emotional response from the audience.
After a shaky start with a hollow attempt at an emotional monologue, Kya Mosey settled into her role as Tamora, Queen of the Goths and Empress of Rome. Mosey was seductive and fluid in her role of the manipulative temptress.
Jeremy Foote and Sean Mott were the stars of the evening as Demetrius and Chiron, sons of Tamora. Their manic energy bounced back and forth between them, as they grotesquely paraded themselves around the space. Their scenes were easily the most deeply disturbing and tense, which is no small feat, given the subject matter of the play.
John Cavan, in his role as Aaron, the empress’s co-conspirator, radiated with fiendish energy. His frequent eye contact with the audience reinforced the unhinged and brutal nature of his character.
The power dynamic felt between brothers Bassianus and Saturninus, played by Hodgkins-Sumner and Brody Wilkinson-Martin respectively, was palpable in early scenes of the play. Hodgkin-Sumner’s earnest acting provided a stark contrast to the dark energy of his cast-mates. Wilkinson-Martin’s clipped motions and subtle facial movements were enrapturing; his eyes filled with sadistic charm and his hand motions deliberate and mocking.
Often seen scurrying from one side of the stage to the other in her role as Messenger, Hannah Martin provided much needed comic relief to the production. Her widened eyes and stooped shoulders made her a delight, one of the only ones of the evening.
The shifts in status between the cast members were effortless, as characters gained and lost footing in relation to the plot. The entire cast had ownership of every instance of gratuitous violence: the punches landed, the tension mounted and the blood flowed.
The Pit itself was used its fullest extent. Actors entered and exited from each of the four corners, and the stairs. Every inch of the floor that was not occupied by an audience member was inhabited at one point or another. This invasive use of the space was well suited to the script, as it allowed the actors to engage more fully with the audience.
In an interesting directorial decision, Shaffer set the tone of the entire production with a 70’s-themed soundtrack. Notable tracks include Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Rupert Holme’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”. The contrast between ABBA and bloody entrails was darkly hilarious, and heavily reinforced the overblown nature of the violence.
However, there were a few notable detractions from the quality of the show itself. The shoes of the several of the actors squeaked with every step they took, making some lines difficult or impossible to hear. Scene changes were clumsy and time-consuming, and detracted from the spell that had been cast from the previous scene. The audience was set up, so there were two rows on either side, facing each other. It was distracting to see the facial expressions of the audience members directly adjacent, and pulled focus away from the action of the play.
“Titus Andronicus” is certainly not for the faint of heart, but for those with a strong stomach, it’s a grand spectacle of buckets of blood.
By the end of the night, my dead body count had surpassed 20.