Friday, October 23, 2015

'Titus Andronicus' at the New Wimbledon Studio, 22nd October 2015

 Shakespeare famously wrote that revenge is a dish best served cold, though his alternative suggestion of serving it inside a great big pie works for me too. Titus Andronicus has always been my Shakespeare guilty pleasure; not his best play but probably his craziest. Apparently written while in a Tarantino kind of mood, it's a non-stop whirlwind of death, mutilation and sadism - so ludicrously over the top that it's difficult to take seriously.

Many didn't, to the point of declaring the play a failure as a tragedy as audiences can't help giggling at lines like: "Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth." The Victorians, so offended by the violence, judged that the play so uncouth that nice Mr Shakespeare couldn't possibly have authored it. The upshot is that while top dogs like Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and so on usually treated with dramatic reverence, you can be a bit silly with Titus Andronicus.

Company Arrows and Traps realise that, making the promising boast that their production will be an "unrelenting carnival of carnage". They more than live up to this; serving up a Titus with lashings of stage blood, heads in bags, lots of stabbings and some slit throats galore. 
The tone is set from minute one, where characters enter to the theme from Terminator. It opens a show that skips freely between impromptu audience participation, expressionistic use of masks, dance-like fight scenes and the blackest of black comedy. Some of it doesn't work: a sequence where the Andronicus clan settle down for a communal game of Skyrim confuses (not helped by a slightly dim projector). Some of it does: the use of wooden masks when Tamora and her sons are disguised as Revenge, Rape and Murder is striking and genuinely creepy.

Further iffy choices come in eclectic soundtrack. One minute we're listening to Marilyn Manson, the next a Kate Bush cover and maybe a dab of Radiohead. These are all good songs, but it's difficult to draw any connection between them and what's going on - as if the stage manager's iPod has been left on shuffle.

But at least you can't accuse Arrows and Traps' Titus of being boring. These little flourishes may vary in effectiveness but they keep the audience interested - even if it's trying to anticipate what the hell they're going to do next.

Thankfully this 'everything including the kitchen sink' approach is underpinned by a confident, charismatic cast. Standing out are Alex Stevens and Will Mytum's Chiron and Demetrius realised as feral punk villains with a touch of A Clockwork Orange. Mytum and Stevens are physically similar to one another - which cranks up the creepiness as they scuttle around the stage with Joker-like smiles carved across their faces

Also fantastically fun is Spencer Lee Osborne's Aaron. In a play full of murderers and rapists, Aaron stands out as particularly despicable: "I have done a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly / And nothing grieves me heartily indeed / But that I cannot do ten thousand more!" It's a cackling supervillain speech and Osborne delivers it with the appropriate levels of gusto, stomping about and bellowing his lines in the manner of Brian Blessed.

Matthew Ward's Titus also impresses. Ward has to travel from sturdy militaristic patriarch all the way to demented chef - not exactly a well-trod dramatic arc. You have to bear in mind that this isn't a subtle play and Titus isn't a particularly subtle character. Even so there are moments where we see the cracks in his mind beginning to widen - the best being when he's confronted by his mutilated daughter. The best moments are the giggles that involuntarily escape as madness sets in, all which eventually leads to themania that overtakes him in the final scenes.

Compared to Shakespeare's usual fare there isn't a huge amount of profundity in Titus Andronicus. If I take anything away, it's to be deeply suspicious of giant meat pies served by your smiling nemesis. But this is a damn fun, visually exciting and physically dynamic show - all the bloody spatterings and severed heads making it an excellent fit for Halloween.


Titus Andronicus is at the New Wimbledon Theatre until 14th November. Tickets here.

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