Review of Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s performance of Titus Andronicus, Greenwich Theatre, London,
2 May 2015
Smooth Faced Gentlemen are the marvellously named only all-female Shakespeare theatre company in Britain. They have been running since 2012 and have recently revived their production of Titus Andronicus, which they first toured Britain with in 2013, culminating in a week-long run at the Greenwich Theatre in London. It is a fine production, in which the novelty of watching an all-female cast is almost instantly forgotten amid the uniformly fine acting and particularly good verse-speaking.
Ironically, however, the production is so good that it actually raises questions about the quality of the play itself. Titus was almost certainly Shakespeare’s first tragedy but seen now, more than 400 years later, it is also perhaps his slightest and least satisfying.
Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s ancient Rome, the location of the play, is simply evoked. The set essentially consists of two large, moveable backboards, which are rotated to create different private and public spaces. The costuming is deliberately anachronistic: there is not a toga in sight, with the cast of eight women (who, with the exception of the actors playing Titus and Aaron, double or even treble up to play Titus Andronicus’s many characters) wearing simple modern dress, including leather jackets.
However, what the production lacks in visual impact, it more than makes up for in verbal impact. As befits the best Shakespeare, this is a play to be heard rather than seen, with every member of the cast pleasingly fluent with what can be complex, even arcane dialogue, full of references to ancient Rome’s power structures and enemies.
In a strong ensemble cast, special mention must be made of three actors. Titus himself (or herself, here) is first among equals, the great combat-hardened general of Rome who, unlike the competitors for the imperial throne, Saturninus and Bassianus, commands popular support. Ariane Barnes is a suitably strong Titus, seemingly taller and more powerful (both in her person and her speech) than all the other women on stage. By contrast, Ashlea Kaye (one of the founders of Smooth Faced Gentlemen) is wonderfully versatile and supple in her performances, playing both Titus’s wheelchair-bound brother, Marcus, and Demetrius, one of the vengeful sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who swears vengeance against Titus after he kills her eldest son at the start of the play as a sacrifice to the gods. Simultaneously pretty and yet somehow simian in her facial appearance, Kaye effortlessly switches between playing a man who cannot walk and another man who cuts people’s hands off. And Anita-Joy Uwajeh is appropriately Machiavellian, even devilish, as Aaron, the Moor.
The problem with any production of Titus, of course, is how to portray the bloodbath that the play eventually becomes, as the cycles of revenge and counter-revenge whirr along at increasingly dizzying pace, and for all the verbal flair and control of the performers this is where Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s production of the play is most problematic. Paintbrushes (large brushes, of the kind used by house painters rather than artists) are used instead of daggers to depict the letting of blood. This in itself is fine, but when it culminates in the use of paint-rollers to signify the arrival of an invading army of Goths the whole conceit becomes at least a little risible, and offsets much of the good work of the actors.
However, that tension, between the tragic and the laughable, is not solely the fault of this production, but arguably of the play itself. It is an early play of Shakespeare’s (probably written about 1593 or 1594) and in many ways seems to be almost a shameless cash-in on the vogue for “revenge tragedies” that had been made so popular by the likes of Marlowe and Kyd. The difficulty is that Titus Andronicus is absurd even by the standards of revenge-tragedies, with both shaky plotting (in particular, the scene in which two of Titus’s sons are tempted into a pit, one literally pulling the other in after him, which Smooth Faced Gentlemen sensibly stage as a shadow-play but which is still inherently ridiculous) and, worse, insufficient character development. The character of Titus himself, for example, is not readily sympathetic, as he all too easily sacrifices Tamora’s oldest child even though he professes to know the pain of losing many children himself.
Of course, everyone, even Shakespeare, has to start somewhere, and in Titus there are the seeds of the later, far greater tragedies, not least in the creation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest early characters, Aaron. The scene in this production where Anita-Joy Uwajeh announces, on seeing her son for the first time, “My mistress is my mistress/This myself”, is particularly moving, as she imparts a new meaning to the line that I had not considered before, namely that Tamora, who already has numerous children, may be prepared to sacrifice her dark-skinned child to save herself from being exposed as an adulteress, but Aaron is absolutely unprepared to let her do so. Nevertheless, as the bodies (and paint-brushes) piled up at the end, for all the undoubted skill and dedication of the actors I found myself wondering if Shakespeare himself, the coiner of so many compound words, had ever considered coining one to combine “tragic” and “ridiculous” – “tragiculous,” perhaps?
Ultimately, this is a fine production of what may be a flawed play (perhaps understandably so, given that it was one of Shakespeare’s earliest). What is most fascinating is to consider what this young company will do next. They have already performed Romeo and Juliet, but perhaps it will be when they perform the late, great tragedies that they will come into their own. (It is easy to imagine Barnes and Kaye, for example, making a fine Lear and Fool double-act.) Not only are those later tragedies infinitely stronger than Titus in plot and characterisation, but, perhaps crucially for Smooth Faced Gentlemen, they offer more complex analyses of gender relationships, and even gender politics. It is in performing those complete, fully realised tragedies that this fine all-female company may really come into its own.
For details of future performances of Titus Andronicus, and other shows, see smoothfacedgentlemen.com