Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Aug 27 – Sep 27, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Adena Jacobs
Cast: Melita Jurisic, Tariro Mavondo, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Jayna Patel, Josh Price, Tony Ray Ray, Daniel Schlusser, Grace Truman, Catherine Văn-Davies
Images by Brett Boardman
War is said to have ended, but the violence of man bears a momentum that cannot be halted. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus involves bloody revenge between feuding parties, a cyclical phenomenon too powerful it seems, for any single human to defy. More than a fixation on murder, the play draws us into its morbid, almost fetishistic preoccupation with rape, amputation, infanticide and cannibalism. It is that pornographic quality that makes Titus Andronicus one of Shakespeare’s least celebrated work, but exploiting this weakness, it appears, can deliver surprising results.
Under Adena Jacobs’ direction, this ultramodern staging removes all the charade of having to relay a narrative, choosing instead to delve right into the dark obsessions that Shakespeare had rightly identified to be a seductive force behind his storytelling. A tale about kings and queens is constructed to mask the titillation derived from the representation of destruction, blood and gore. Jacobs’ show rids itself of pretence, in order that we may come in direct confrontation with some of our ugliest realities. We have to decide what is pleasurable and what is objectionable, acknowledge the disturbing overlaps, and perhaps most importantly, evaluate our peculiar attraction to horror. If we can understand the appeal of witnessing the grotesque in our art, there must surely be correlations with real world harm that can be identified and demystified.
Flamboyantly macabre, Jacobs’ version of Titus Andronicus is avant-garde theatre at its most enthralling. Every scene a spectacle, as intriguing as they are outrageous. Shakespeare’s characters are portrayed to be as bizarre as they truly are, and in ridding the wolf of sheep’s clothing, we get closer to the essence of these people and of our shared inglorious humanity. Designer Eugyeene Teh does extraordinary work with sets, props and costumes, exhilarating with the freedom he expresses through the manifestation of some very wild visions. Video projections are a crucial element of the production, and Verity Hampson’s ability to seamlessly incorporate live and pre-recorded material with everything else that is demanded of our senses, makes for a series of multimedia juxtapositions that prove to be thoroughly, and unusually, satisfying. Sound design by Max Lyandvert forms a direct link with our nervous system, able to control our visceral responses with tremendous detail, in accordance with the shifting tensions being dramatically rendered.
An entirely splendid cast of performers, each one daring, inventive and spirited, present an experimental venture the degree of which is rarely seen on the big stages in Sydney. Playing Titus is Jane Montgomery Griffiths, whose unfailing emotional intensity provides a dependable anchor for us to navigate the feverishly chaotic action. The maternal quality she brings to the role prevents us from conveniently dismissing violence as par for the course in this story about warriors. Instead, we are compelled to connect with the moral dimensions that accompany each brutal thought and deed. Young actor Grace Truman leaves a marvellous impression with her conviction and focus, demonstrating herself to be an irresistible presence at the tender age of fifteen. Some of the show’s more extreme moments of performative transgression come from a radiant Catherine Văn-Davies, who uses her body to make statements about defilement in a way that is simultaneously vulnerable and defiant. In a piece that talks about people going too far, the inspired Văn-Davies certainly pushes the envelope in terms of what we have come to expect, of artistic establishments that tend to be obstinately conservative.
Amongst all the gruesome atrocities of Titus Andronicus, is something that feels like a transcendent beauty. It is clear that carnage has an alluring power; there is a part of us that loves the dark, that our capacity for cruelty, whether sadistic or masochistic, is undeniable. As audience, we are caught between knowing what is right, and wanting to see the worst. Artists are on hand to engage our imagination, sometimes for a discussion, and sometimes for catharsis. On this occasion, what we witness often seems strange, but its immense resonance demands that we look deeper, so that we find points of recognition within, that we come face to face with aspects of the self that are too hideous to address.