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Titus Andronicus, Arcola Theatre – Review

William Shakespeare

Directed by Zoé Ford 
★★★★
Pros: A bold production bursting with energy. 
Cons: At times, amidst the shouting, the actors’ words were lost.
Our Verdict: A visceral experience that will stay with you forever. 
Credit: Adam Trigg
The play Titus Andronicus hasn’t always been revered by the critics and public. Arguably the first play that Shakespeare wrote, it followed the fashion of the time of revenge plays with violence and high body counts. You could say that Shakespeare started his professional period with his Tarantino period! Hiraeth Artistic Productions has taken its lead from this and delivered a tour de force performance of the Bard’s bloodiest play.
The decision by director Zoé Ford to transpose the play to north London in the early 1980s isn’t as new or radical as it may first appear. Nor was her decision to have the Romans garbed as skinheads and the Goths to dress as we know them today. In 1999 for example, Julie Taymor had elements of antiquity and the present day juxtaposed in her movie Titus, to underline the timeless nature of violence. 
In some ways the play’s plot follows a similar line to the movie Gladiator. A Roman general is due to return to Rome during the latter days of the Empire, back when tribes such as the pesky Germanian Goths were testing Rome’s aging strength. Titus loses one of his sons during the campaign, but his forces prevail and take the queen of the Goths and her entourage captive, to punish later in Rome. This moment of hubris would prove to be the undoing of him and his family.
While the play has made its way to the silver screen, nobody has come close before to translating this ode to revenge in all its gruesomeness to the stage. Ford doesn’t shy away from the violence – in fact there is very little in terms of blows and blood that isn’t depicted. Violence isn’t glamorised and one comes away from the play with the realisation that violence truly begets violence. Ford also makes ample use of the ‘theatre-in-the-round’ aspects of the Arcola, so there is plenty to see wherever you sit. Helping to set the scene are unadorned walls in their natural state and debris. This hints at urban decay and the dilapidated buildings left in the wake of the riots in 1981.
Any good adaptation of Shakespeare should bring the language of the 17th century to life. Saying this, I have to admit that that there were times during the on-stage altercations that the shouting obscured the cast’s dialogue (though amusingly, a liberal amount of colloquial ad-libbing could be heard clearly!). On the plus side, when the dialogue wasn’t shouted, there were some clever and witty interpretations of Shakespeare’s prose and verse.
A special mention should be made to Maya Thomas (Lavinia, Titus’ daughter) who without the aid of words was able to convey her characters abject despair and pain after the atrocities earlier in the play. Another notable performance was the Machiavellian Aaron as portrayed by Stanley J Browne, who played the part with gusto. When his offspring appears in the latter half the play, one could totally believe in spite of his many faults that he would be selfless and want to save the life of his child.
In the past I haven’t been keen on Shakespeare adaptations that are transposed to a different period from when they are set. They often felt like a square peg being squeezed into a round hole. On this occasion, however, not only were the cultural elements consistent and well-thought-out, but Ford actually maximised their potential and used music of the period to say things that dialogue never could. In some films and plays, the city is a character in its own right. In the case of Titus Andronicus, the emotional architecture stems from the music of the Punk/New Wave era (or at least music that sounded like it came from that time).
There is a saying that people don’t remember what you say, but they do remember how you make them feel. Well, I’m sure in months and years to come that I and many others will remember this gutsy production (in every sense of the word) for its brave choices. Faultless? Perhaps not. Predictable and played by the numbers? Most definitely not!
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Titus Andronicus runs at Arcola Theatre until 26th October 2013.
Box Office: 020 7503 1646 or book online at http://www.arcolatheatre.com/tickets-for/arcola/titus-andronicus

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