Titus Andronicus is a play that indulges our basest instincts and most brutal fantasies. It does not so much shine a light on the dark side of our humanity as drag it centre stage, cover it in bells, and force its audience to watch it jiggle and dance until they can take no more.
Faced with this uncomfortable concept, theatre companies must make a choice: attempt the impossible by trying to accurately render the play’s unspeakable horrors on stage, or use the opportunity to say something meaningful about our cruel natures that goes beyond shallow moralising.
The Smooth Faced Gentlemen wisely chose the latter course in this inventive all-female production, offering a bloodstained burlesque overflowing with horror and humour. Director Yaz Al-Shaater has cut down the text to a fast and furious ninety minutes that focuses the action tightly on Titus’s anguished quest for revenge. A cast of just eight is tasked with representing the competing houses of Titus and Tamora as well as the court of Rome, resulting in a series of whirlwind transitions from character to character that sets a fierce tempo, well suited to the chaos and nonsense of the source material.
This is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stuff. Characters are slain and their actors re-cast in seconds. The action shifts from the Roman court, setting of Titus’s return from war, to the forest, the place of Lavinia’s brutal ravishing, and back to the city with barely pause for breath. The succession of sorrows that Titus suffers happen so fast and are so overwhelming that his reaction- to laugh in the face of all he has lost- seems the only rational response.
The action takes place on a stark white stage against an array of translucent grey panels representing Rome, the forest, and Titus’s home in turn. It serves as a fitting canvas for the absurd series of murders that unfold. Characters slay one another with sodden paint brushes, staining the white stage progressively red as the body count stacks up.
This marriage of the ridiculous and the grotesque produce moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity. Saturninus, the Roman emperor, is portrayed by Lia Burge as a petulant windbag- more Queen of Hearts à la Alice in Wonderland than dread lord Caesar. Her squabbles with Bassianus and ragings at Titus had the audience in stitches. Elly Condron’s Lavinia, meanwhile, played her grim disfigurements for comic effect in a dumb show sequence with Titus and Marcus. The act of laughing at the pleadings of a raped woman with hands and tongue cut off proved one of the most uncomfortably discordant moments of the production.
There were instances of real emotional depth too. The crowning scene was the one in which Lavinia pleads to Tamora for deliverance from the sordid purposes of her two sons. Olivia Bromley depicts the Queen of Goths as unusually vulnerable here, giving the audience the barest peek at the one dull spark of pity buried in her soul as Lavinia begs for mercy at her feet. The two characters – so easily caricatured as the opposing poles of femininity in lesser productions – were rendered in much finer detail here.
Barnes’ Titus was another highlight. Whether by accident or design a seam of feminine sensitivity ran through her performance so that while she comforted the ravaged Lavinia the audience saw Titus as both father and mother, wrenched by grief and bursting for revenge all at the same time.
The action ratcheted up to such a pace in the second half that some of the scene transitions jarred more so than in the first, but the actors’ ability to ascribe each role they portrayed a distinct physicality kept us on track. The blistering conclusion also lived up to the promise of the previous eighty minutes, culminating in a bloody melee that starkly exposed the fundamental paradox of revenge: that it begets action and reaction without end, until all are brought to nothing.