Titus (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre
August 19 – September 6
The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble is committed to sharing Shakespeare’s epic stories. And when it comes to epic they don’t get much grander than the bloody, vengeful “Titus Andronicus”, the source of their latest work, “Titus” in which we are told:
I must talk of murders, rapes, and massacres,
Acts of black night, abominable deeds,
Complots of mischief, treason, villanies
Ruthful to hear, yet piteously perform’d:
The comic tragedy tells begins with the great, fictional Roman general, Titus Andronicus (Rob Pensalfini) returning home victorious but battle-weary after a decade-long, brutal war with the Goths. His first act is to ritually sacrifice his prisoner, the eldest son of his now Goth Queen, Tamora (Rebecca Murphy). However, when the corrupt Saturninus (Benjamin Prindable) is made Emperor and surprisingly makes Tamora his Queen, a new battle ensues as Tamora, and then Titus, enact a cycle of double revenge that sees violent acts met with violent deeds.
In the arduous role of the titular Titus, ‘the woefullest man who ever lived in Rome’, Pensalfini anchors the production with a steadfast performance as he did as Prospero in last year’s “The Tempest”. His Titus is enigmatic as he traverses his narrative of heroic veteran, stoic parent, crazy victim and clever revenger, for as with all the primary characters, his performance is one that emphasises the complexity to Shakespeare’s characters. As the Machiavellian villain Aaron, the Moor, Silvan Rus does an expert job of revealing his cunning, delighting in his malevolence in a manner like that of Shakespeare’s future Iago. Even when suggesting that Tamora’s sons rape Titus’ only daughter Lavinia before killing her as mean of affording Tamora her revenge, there is a musicality to his dialogue delivery that makes for a thoroughly engaging performance.
Rebecca Murphy is appropriate controlled and cold-hearted as the sensual but merciless Tamora, Queen of the Goths, unmoved by Lavinia’s pleas with her as a fellow woman to kill her to spare the pain and public stain of rape. Her performance is dramatic without being overly so, which is no easy task given the character’s selfishness and lack of feeling in delegating infanticide of her newborn, illegitimate son to his father’s hands. However, it is Johancee Theron who leaves the most lasting impression. Her energetic revelatory performance as Lavinia, ranges from chaste, obedient but feisty betrothed (she would be a marvel in the role of Kat in “The Taming of the Shrew”) to beaten-down, brutal rape victim. Disfigured and mute after the incident, she is deprived of traditional communication, yet her performance transcends this incapacitation as she shares emotion and even injects humour through subtle facial expressions and expressive eyes.
As much as modernisations and adaptations of Shakespearean plays have a place as evidence of his currency as a contemporary voice, there is something satisfying to the experience of seeing a more traditional take on his work, still able to actively engage its audience in such an array of emotions (especially for those unfamiliar with the horrific details of the show’s climactic, cannibalistic banquet). Not only does this “Titus” handle the story’s macabre aspects well, but it cleverly uses humour to engage the audience into lulled satisfaction ahead of its disturbing savagery as Rus showcases Aaron’s sadistic charm through playful, teasing sexual innuendo and even a ‘your mother’ joke as taunt to his lover’s sons, never missing a beat in terms of timing.
The choice to again have audience members seated on stage allows the action to be given a depth befitting its vast and varied scene-scapes as players take the action into the tied seating of the Roma Street Parkland Amphitheatre’s terraced stalls, with the pit over stage edge also becoming a convenient way of disposing of many of the tragedy’s victims, making transitions subtle and seamless. This is a production that knows how to make a visual impact. The proximity of audience members literally allows viewers to, in some instances, come face-to-face with characters, which affords additional investment in their narrative. And the incorporation of live music and movement inspired by the Japanese dance theatre form, Butoh only add to the interest and aesthetic appeal of show that is already visually lush with detailed costumes and atmospheric lighting, particularly a menacing red that awashes the ‘stage’ during its moments of heightened horror.
While it is a fictional account, unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, “Titus Andronicus” contains echoes of many of the Bard’s later plays, with a finale scene revelation much like in “Othello”. Indeed, for Shakespeare enthusiasts there is much value in its consideration as one Shakespeare’s earlier works and its repeated negative Moor imagery in Aaron’s villainous choices in contrast to the unfortunate circumstances of Othello’s villainy a decade later. But this is far from an elitist work for Shakespeare aficionados. As exploration of the raw, primal instinct for retribution, “Titus” is a gripping production, well worth seeing for those looking for some Roma Street Parkland revenge. QSE is to be commended for daring to take on Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent work and showing audiences that there is more to the Bard’s tragedies than tales of youthful woe. Clearly, it not only respects the work but deserves to have audiences flocking to see how they do Shakespeare… properly.