The New York Shakespeare Exchange’s production of Titus Andronicus “brings Shakespeare’s notorious war-mongering tragedy to brilliant life as it’s never been seen before”, proclaims HERE.com, website of the performance arts production organization of the same name(Here.com) . “Viewed through a uniquely contemporary American lens, this Titus will punch you in the gut and leave you panting for relief”, the short overview continues. For audience members like myself, who had never seen a staged Shakespearian play before, reading such a semi- vague description online did not even begin to give me an inkling as to what it was that I was expecting to see. Or what I should see. Or even what I wanted to see. Even as someone who is an avid fan of Shakespeare, reads the plays, analyses the language- I can honestly say that I did not know what to expect coming to see Titus Andronicus at the Here theatre on a frigid Tuesday, February 3rd at 8:30 pm. Essentially speaking, I came in as prepared to see a Shakespeare play as a person could possibly be. And even so, I had no idea what I was in for.
As the audience was ushered into the small theatre, they were met with a scene would seem altogether unrelated to those who know of Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, or any of his plays: a run- down country circus venue. Dingy red and white sheets draped across the stage served as a backdrop, with a large white and red bull’s-eye fitted with flashy circus lights taking center stage. Off- stage to the left and right were two even moreso peculiar scenes- to the left a vanity furniture set, fitted with flowers and lighting, and to the right, perhaps the most instrumental(pun intended) feature of the production- an old- fashioned grain dispenser and a metal tub. None of these things quite fit together, in Shakespeare or otherwise, right? Wrong. Somehow, someway, director Rose Williams and her creative team interlock all these out- of- context, new- age ideas ideas with Titus’s cast, costume design, and the driving force behind this whole production: the language and stylistic writings of William Shakespeare.
The ability of the creative forces behind Titus Andronicus to enact all its artistic liberities in a way that amplifies and enriches the language of Shakespeare in a true- to – form, yet altogether fresh and contemporary way, is what essentially steals the show in Titus Andronicus. Not the blood, not the gore or lopped- off limbs, but the creative genius which takes this 500 year- old piece of work, and envelops it into something that makes a staged Shakespeare neophyte like me, 19 a New Yorker and far- moved from the ruins of old Rome, anxious, on the edge of my seat, and still able to say “I get it”.
Prior to the evening’s performance, I was one of few who had the opportunity to talk to some of the masterminds responsible for the spectacle I was to witness later on that night. During the conversation, the director and her constituents kept on referring to “a circus”, “the circus”, and I was utterly confused. I thought maybe it was just some kind of theater slang that I didn’t understand. As the discussion continued, they elaborated upon the important of the political system in Rome during the time in which Titus Andronicus was staged, and how the characters vying for the throne of Rome, or plotting for its destruction, went through great and overbearing lengths to execute the means to their ends.
During the production itself is when I understood “the circus”: the political scene in Rome was like a circus. From the onset of Titus, is it as if we are surrounding a circus ring and watching its animals perform:
Enter the TRIBUNES and SENATORS aloft; and then enter
SATURNINUS and his followers at one door, and BASSIANUS and his
at the other, with drums and trumpets
Noble patricians, patrons of my right,
Defend the justice of my cause with arms;
And, countrymen, my loving followers,
Plead my successive title with your swords.
I am his first born son that was the last
That ware the imperial diadem of Rome;
Then let my father’s honours live in me,
Nor wrong mine age with this indignity.
Romans, friends, followers, favourers of my right,
If ever Bassianus, Caesar’s son,
Were gracious in the eyes of royal Rome,
Keep then this passage to the Capitol;
And suffer not dishonour to approach
The imperial seat, to virtue consecrate,
To justice, continence, and nobility;
But let desert in pure election shine;
And, Romans, fight for freedom in your choice (1.1.1-17).
Staurninus and Bassianus, the two brothers appealing for the crown, come in with their cronies and each put on a big speech in the hopes of appealing to their respective audiences. Saturninus(played by Vince Gatton)appeals to the traditions of the great Rome of antiquity- that through birthright as first- born he should ascend the throne. Showy, gaudy in dress(furs, bright striped socks and an ascot to boot) and smug in speech and gestures, his tactics of persuasion include taking up arms and allude to the violence that will ensue throughout the following acts. Bassianus(Adam Kezel) is more demure and holds your attention with his gentleness as he speaks to the people of Rome directly, encouraging them to choose their own king, leaning towards more of a republic than a monarchy. His younger face, and boyish long hair, along with his amiable tone, make him someone we as the audience, want to be king. However, it is Saturninus who receives the somewhat declining Rome.
The arrival of the Goths as prisoners of Rome, and the refusal of large and towering Titus Andronicus(Brendan Averett) to spare the life of one of the sons of Tamora, queen of the Goths(Gretchen Elgolf), leads into many a scene in which the severing of extremities, and an alarming loss of lives(played for the most part by clown Kerry Kastin) is cleverly portrayed and pantomimed through the sound of grain from the dispenser going into the tub. This pattern, which continues up until the second half of the play, when blood is finally introduced through means of Lavinia’s torture and is strategically splattered throughout the final scenes. Lucius refers to it as “meed for meed, death for a deadly deed”, which is essentially the circus- like frenzy of killing and revenge that this modern take on a piece that speaks such volumes of the values of Roman political and military power of old(5.3.65).
This performance of Titus Andronicus, from its My Chemical Romance opening musical scene and leather clad ensembles, to its cannibal pie finish, took all of these abstract and out of place concepts for Shakespearian literature and made them relevant and contextual in terms of the language of the play. Everything is perfectly detailed and relates back to the original text in a way that makes it both fitting for a “Shakespeare play”, but also fitting for contemporary 21st century New York City, where it is also like a circus. New York is known as a world powerhouse, in which things are always going and moving, and we aren’t quite sure who to look at or what to listen to, as I often found myself doing while watching this performance of Titus Andronicus. The City and its pressures also brings some people to the point where they commit questionable asks for the sake of obtaining power or wealth, much like Titus’s cast do some pretty shifty things in attempts to secure power or thwart their enemies. As my first Shakespeare experience, this Titus really did punch me in the gut with its creative and clever nuances.
Shakespeare, William, and Jonathan Bate. Titus Andronicus. London:
Routledge, 1995. Print.
“SHOWS.” HERE. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. <http://here.org/shows/detail/1576/>.