Monday, July 21, 2008

Titus Andronicus

My review of Bard on the Beach's Titus Andronicus appears in this week's WestEnder. Pick up a copy if you get a chance!

Titus Andronicus
By Andrea Warner

Considered one of the most structurally problematic of Shakespeare’s plays, and certainly his most violent and bloody, Titus Andronicus is often dismissed in favour of staging more straightforward tragedies such as Macbeth or Hamlet. Thank goodness Kim Collier (making her directorial debut with Bard on the Beach) possesses no such fears about grappling with such dark material.

Collier’s Titus Andronicus is relentlessly gripping and disturbingly modern as themes of revenge and evil reveal themselves in unthinkable and senselessly violent acts. Titus returns from war, victorious, with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her children as prisoners. Titus, mourning the loss of his sons in battle, sacrifices Tamora’s eldest child and she vows her revenge. Saturninus, the new Emperor, wishes to marry Lavinia, but Bassiana (a male character in the original Titus, but overtly lesbian here to complement Collier’s 21st century setting), his sister, has already claimed Lavinia as her own. Saturninus takes Tamora as his wife, who continues to dally with Aaron, her Moorish lover, the puppeteer who orchestrates the vile and contemptuous chain of events that follow.

This is the same cast that sparkles so brightly in the delightful Tempest. The material is strikingly different, and the cast nimbly and successfully delivers fantastic performances with characters that are polar opposites.

Omari Newton’s Aaron is a solid presence as the devil’s henchman, glowering and conniving, manipulating Tamora and her Euro-trash psycho sons into doing his bidding. Newton is a physically powerful actor, but the character doesn’t have much depth except that he loves to do bad things. It will be interesting to see what Newton does with a truly three-dimensional role in the future.

Jennifer Lines’ Tamora could not be more opposite than her Tempest character, Ariel. The physical transformation is wondrous: she fills out the tight confines of Tamora’s outrageous outfits and spiked heels, exuding authority and confidence, asserting her sexuality with every word. The skin crawls when Tamora instructs her sons to be as violent as possible when raping Lavinia, directly proportionate to their love for their mother.

Julie McIsaac (Lavinia), Charles Christien Gallant (Demetrius), and Kyle Rideout (Chiron) are tasked with the most disturbing scenes. McIssac is truly devastating as she pleads to be spared and then pleads for her death before the brothers take her offstage for the attack. In the aftermath of the attack, as McIssac lies bloodied and battered on the ground, Gallant taunts her and Rideout takes out a digital camera, posing beside her and laughingly taking pictures. Their off-handed and casual glee in having repeatedly raped and then mutilated Lavinia is affectively sickening.

Russell Roberts, as the title character, carries the weight of the world on Titus’s shoulders, but he’s never more effective than in Titus’s debilitating discovery of Lavinia’s rape and torture. He cries real tears, and conveys beautifully Titus’s realization that he’s powerless to protect his children. Later, Roberts takes great pleasure in one of the production’s few funny moments, as he pretends to be crazy to fool Tamora and her sons. Finally, as he succumbs to the madness of his revenge, slitting Chiron and Demetrius’s throats, then feeding the boys to their mother in a baked pie, Roberts makes Titus’s descent painfully human.

The blood flows as freely in Titus as the wine did in Tempest, but it never feels silly or gimmicky. Each violent act resonates deeply so don’t be surprised if by the intermission you feel physically ill. This Titus Andronicus packs an emotional punch that is so visceral, you’ll wonder if maybe you didn’t leave part of yourself behind when the lights come up.

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