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Titus Andronicus is frequently referred to as Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. Now, Australian audiences will get a chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest attempt to stage this gory revenger’s tragedy when the RSC Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon plays in cinemas across the country.
“The decay of Rome reaches violent depths in Shakespeare’s most bloody play,” reads the company marketing copy. “Titus is a ruler exhausted by war and loss, who relinquishes power but leaves Rome in disorder. Rape, cannibalism and severed body parts fill the moral void at the heart of this corrupt society.”
When the drama begins, the Roman General Titus Andronicus has returned from a drawn out and bloody 10-year war in which he has lost 21 of his sons in battle. With thoughts of retirement and a life with his only daughter Lavinia, a wrong decision on Titus’s part pitches him into the violent series of events as he and Tamora, Queen of the Goths engage in a terrible cycle of revenge and murder.
Stefan Adegbola as Aaron in Titus Andronicus. Photo © Helen Maybanks
Blanche McIntyre’s updating of the action to 2017 turns a play sometimes thought of as black and white into a thoughtful riff on politics and some of the violence inherent in societies across the world today. Although set neither overtly in Britain or the US, there are clear resonances, and the production, unsurprisingly comes with warnings of gunshots and sexual content, with violent and potentially distressing scenes. However, McIntyre believes the play should make you think as well as react to the physical shock of it all. "The tone is always serious to make you think," she says, "but also funny and shocking so that it keeps you engaged and keeps you surprised. You also have to care about the characters, because if you don't it's just a gore-fest and there's no reason why you should watch it."
Intriguingly, the RSC has been doing some additional research into the heart rates of audience members watching the production in the theatre as well as in cinema when it was broadcast in the UK. In each session, 10 people were fitted with the heart rate tracker – a device like a large wrist watch – and monitored throughout the performance. The heart rate statistics of the theatre samples and their cinematic equivalents will be released next month to see how ‘live’ horror and violence compares with merely ‘recorded’ blood and gore. Becky Loftus, Head of Audience Insight at the RSC explains their thinking here.
Ahead of the Australian screenings, Limelight caught up with the great Shakespearean actor David Troughton, who has been roundly applauded for his portrayal of the titular character, and who describes the play as "Shakespeare on acid":
What attracted you to the play and tacking the title role in particular?
Titus has always been a part that I wanted to play, because it is a marvelous study of a man trying to cope and make sense of the personal miseries to which he is subjected.
Titus Andronicus sometimes gets a rough ride from critics as 'not one of Shakespeare's best written plays'. Is that at all fair?
No! This is an early work, experimental if you like, and written as a money spinner. It was extremely popular in its time. There are so many bits of the play that one can see he develops in his other plays, especially King Lear.
As a play, Titus Andronicus is often remembered for its levels of violence. Did that ever make you hesitate about accepting the title role?
Not at all. It is a violent play but the violence is not gratuitous. It serves a purpose to enable Titus to reach a state of complete despair and madness from which he finds a sort of resolution and peace.
It's a contemporary production, but do the ideas and actions of the characters feel dated at all?
Again, not at all. Shakespeare’s work always has a relevance today, that’s why he has lasted so long. Through the medium of poetry, he brings his characters and situations vividly to life, enabling the audience to experience the universality of their stories.
In this production, what were the greatest challenges as an actor – emotional and technical?
The play, as far as Titus is concerned, is a play of two halves. The first half all emotion and grief, while the second half explores the result of that emotion through his supposed madness. Technically, having one’s hand cut off is always a challenge, as is bursting a blood bag over one’s chest!
The gory scenes here are very gory indeed. What, for you, is the most grisly moment?
The scene in which Titus sees his daughter for the first time after her rape has to be the most harrowing. But having said that, seeing my sons’ heads in a plastic bag for the first time was quite disturbing, too!
What has been the most extreme reaction from an audience member, and were you prepared for people fainting and walk outs?
There have been several stoppages of the show when people have fainted or collapsed. One young woman, sobbing inconsolably, had to be led out of the auditorium. Of course, we thought that these things might happen, but it is quite upsetting when it does. But, as an actor, one has to put these things to the back of one’s mind and despite the difficulty, carry on.
What lessons do you think we learn from the play in this day and age?
When there is no wise, caring, understanding leadership of a society, and people are left to their own devices then savage violence will erupt. The result is chaos and all humanity suffers. Witness the world today!
Titus Andronicus screens across Australia from September 23.