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Review: Titus Andronicus

As I’m writing this it was Easter Sunday yesterday and also Trans Day of Visibility (which may not seem like a big deal to some but let me tell you it’s such a relief to be not completely transparent, even if it’s only for one day) and today it’s Easter Monday and also April Fools Day, which is so many days in the past two days – like about four. Everyone’s favourite transmasc king Jesus Christ rose and was visible for 24 hours and then disappeared again, which was like an April Fool on the world or something? Not sure what I was thinking when writing this. Yay trans people! Moving swiftly on.

Titus Andronicus! Is not my favourite Shakespeare play, because it’s a bit weird (only the fairest and most reasonable criticisms here) and I’m one of the camp of old-fashioned assholes who think it just isn’t as well written as the others. But for Thomas Scott, the Director/Costumier for this latest Mermaids production, who I interviewed along with Producer Ami Melville, the weirdness is the point. In his production ‘there’s no such thing as humans; everyone’s a creature’, so because Titus Andronicus ‘is the most grotesque out of all the works of Shakespeare [...] because it’s so dark and messed up, why not enhance that in a way that’s very strange’. Inspired by Where the Wild Things Are and Coraline, he wants the audience to feel like ‘they’re in an uncomfortable nightmare zone, where nothing’s a human and everything feels bizarre’. Bizarre fits this play, in which our questionable hero Titus has had exactly 25 sons and one daughter, and 21 of the sons have died before the play begins and he immediately kills another for almost no reason. The play is also set in a pastiche of Rome which could never have historically existed, so it works well to turn that into a nightmare otherworldly Rome. Photo credit: Thomas and Ami.

The strangeness, making everyone into a creature, is done through masks for every character, all painstakingly hand-made by Thomas, which are the big highlight of this show. He says ‘I have been working non-stop from December all the way up to yesterday [Sunday] I have literally gotten rid of my social life, every single day – besides my birthday, that’s the one day I gave myself off – I have been stuck in my room making masks. Luckily I really enjoy making masks because I love crafting, I love monsters. Mask work is something that’s super important – I’m actually working on an essay now that’s about mask work and I think it’s something that needs to be incorporated in theatre more, because of the important history behind mask work, like Japanese Noh theatre, Ancient Greek theatre, all of that. It’s definitely taken away my life within these months, so it’ll be nice to have a breather – my room is destroyed – but it’s been nice too.’ The masks are astonishingly beautiful and grotesque, combining various animals with huge horns, so the death of his social life was a sacrifice well made. Imagine the world we could be living in if all the cool artistic queer people stayed inside and worked themselves to death instead of going out and making cool artistic conversation. A whole generation of Prousts.

In theatre masks have to serve a purpose, instead of just looking pretty and making it hard to hear what you’re saying, which Thomas also explains: ‘I actually really love the aspect where you can’t act with your face, because it forces the actor to move with their body, and so there are so many things where the slightest movement of the head, without even using the face, can create so much emotion that you normally wouldn’t think of, and then also it allows the actors to move their bodies in ways that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to. I know I tell people like really use your arms, make sure you’re exaggerating with them, where normally you might have them more subtly down to your body, but because you don’t have facial expressions you have to think of other ways to express yourself and I just love it so much. I love masks and the different strange qualities that you have to work around them, it’s so cool not having the facial expressions’. There are some very good examples of this movement in masks – Thomas says ‘I wish we’d had more time for the actors to really move in them, but because they take so long to make we haven’t had a whole lot’, but Emily Speed really stands out as Tamora, the Queen of the Goths and then Roman Empress, in a creepy horse-like mask (I’ve just realised I don’t know what animals look like (I spend too much time inside) so my descriptions of these will be very bad). She accompanies her vengeful manipulations with sinister and very effective hand movements and asserts a really powerful authority over all the scenes she’s in. I was also impressed by Amelia Stokeld’s movements as the mutilated Lavinia, the bottom of whose mask was taken off as her tongue was cut out, and who contorted with her arms and chopped-off hands pressed against her body in a stylised way that still felt quite real and affecting.

Luke Robinson’s Titus didn’t behave quite so realistically with a chopped-off hand, using it to point at things and clap, but he was admittedly mad at the time. Titus’ mask is also brilliant, a slightly bemused-looking lion, reflecting how much time Titus spends standing at the sidelines – literally at the side of the stage here – watching and being told things. Then he goes mad and energetically throws his arms around and giggles and wears kind of absurd dressing gowns over his toga-like costume, which is not really how I’ve always interpreted Titus but it’s confidently and smoothly executed here. I also really like the mask of Marcus, played by Jack Dams, who says deeply weird poetical things in a grandiose tone in contrast to the horrors around him and is a wolf-like thing, which hints at the warlikeness in him: he is the one who urges Titus to seek revenge instead of grieving. Louise Mountbatten-Windsor’s sincere and quick-to-action Lucius, by contrast, is a cute rabbit, showing off his immaturity and also cuteness. I love rabbits. Being a rabbit makes Lucius so much more interesting as a character.

Another thing that I love, almost as much as rabbits, is the creative lighting in this play, done by Lewis Fitez, Arden Henley, and Kilda Kennedy. It turns out there are mirrors at the back of the Barron, which they project spotlights off and onto the floor – for instance prison-like orange grids when Titus sees the mutilated Lavinia, is tricked into cutting off his hand by Aaron, and is brought the heads of sons, reflecting his helplessness. The lighting is always multicoloured, in otherworldly shades of green and blue and orange which add to the nightmare effect – when Tamora comes to visit Titus, pretending to be Revenge incarnate, she is lit from the front in yellow and from the back in blue. This is just really cool and I wish I saw more fun stuff with lighting in these plays because this is great. There are some other really fun ideas here too – sand is used instead of blood, which is the same sand Lavinia later uses to write out the names of her attackers. Ami talks about the advantages of the Barron for doing stuff like this: ‘I love the Barron, it’s my favourite venue. I think that you can transform the black box theatre specifically into so many different environments [...] I think that a black box allows you to think outside the box – because we don’t have any set for this play, it’s all costume- and character-based, and I think that a black box theatre allows you to do that because there’s no places for the audience to be distracted by windows or wallpaper or any other conventions of a theatre’. I’ve talked about how much I like the masks already, but I think the effect of them is really heightened up close in the Barron – this is a relatively large cast for a Barron play and there are lots of times where the stage is just filled with creepy white sort-of-skull-like masks.

Titus Andronicus is a play with a long history of adaptation and significant script adjustments, which this adaptation is thankfully a part of – I’m a big fan of at least cuts to Shakespeare scripts, and because of Thomas’s changes here this lasted a good sensible slightly-over-two hours instead of maybe more like four. Some changes are more obvious than others: swords are changed to claws, in the script as well as in what’s happening on stage, and that works pretty well and naturally. There are some cuts that I feel bad about, like my favourite ambiguous implied stage direction in all of Shakespeare, when Lavinia kisses someone after Aaron delivers to Titus the two decapitated heads of his sons and it’s cool no matter how you stage it but it’s coolest if she kisses the decapitated heads. But no! No weird mask kissing. There are some more serious reasons for cuts and script adjustments. Titus Andronicus is very much a play about race, and it is also a very racist play. Thomas explains how he handled that in a version where humans, and therefore human racism, don’t exist: ‘my production has its history all the way back to 2022 – I’m a postgrad student, so this was for a production proposal assignment in a postgrad class of Shakespeare students I was in so I was able to talk to them and my Shakespeare professor to figure out the best way to deal with it [...] with a lot of the human racist elements having to very much adapt that and alter that: the strange thing with Aaron is that he’s not a Roman and he’s not a Goth – I have colours representing the different characters, so he’s blank, he doesn’t have any sort of association with them’. 

I am not a Shakespeare professor. I am but a humble first-year, and as a humble first-year I have very strong opinions without much to back them up, and absolute confidence that I’m correct. So take everything I’m about to say with a large grain of salt. In order to remove the racism and fit the play into this nightmare world, a lot of references to race in the play have been removed – the racist fly metaphor, lots of randomly racist statements, the linguistic motifs of whiteness and Blackness running through the play, etc. But this is a play very concerned with race and how people identify themselves in relation to it. The distinction between Roman and Goth is maintained, in fact made clearer with the Andronici blues and purples and the Goth yellows and oranges, but I don’t think Aaron’s lack of colours and lack of association with either side comes across very clearly, or really acts as a replacement for his alienation based on skin colour in the play, and I feel that a lot of the depth of for instance his care for his and Tamora’s child, rejected in the original for its Blackness, is lost. That’s fair enough though, since the point of this production isn’t to explore that – very racist anyway – element of the play. The more significant issue is that not all racism is removed from the play: Aaron is still repeatedly referred to as a ‘Moor’, a derogatory identification in Shakespeare’s England of being vaguely from Africa, but in the public consciousness specifically meaning Blackness, a Blackness associated with the devil, with quickness to violence and other racist stereotypes – an identification which reduces him to his Blackness, making him ‘the Moor’ instead of ‘Aaron’. This wouldn’t normally be an issue to complain about, but this version of the play tries to remove the idea of race – and yet Aaron is still identified explicitly by skin colour, even if that isn’t present on stage with the masks. Titus Andronicus is, for obvious reasons, conventionally not performed without a Black actor for Aaron, but this production, theoretically removing Aaron’s race, doesn’t have one. I feel that the continued use of ‘Moor’ makes this problematic, and I’m also slightly uncomfortable with the idea of just simply removing the element of race from a famously racist play – but plenty of people more expert than me seem to be fine with it so what do I know. 

But basically this play is really cool and creative and does so much fun stuff, and the lighting is great and the masks are incredible. I think a lot of people left a bit confused, because this is a Shakespeare play they didn’t know before and the plot is complicated and the language is difficult in the first place and harder when muffled by a mask, and they probably could have used a few more rehearsals. But I love the ideas here, and I think the concept of putting this ridiculously brutal, merciless play in a familiar-yet-unfamiliar nightmare world is really fitting, and also did I mention the masks are amazing. Thomas says ‘I really want the audience to see the love and amazingness of masked performance, because so many people think of it taking away instead of creating something so unique, and like I said theatre has its history with mask work, and I know I could spend the rest of my life doing masked theatre, just from performing it to creating it to all of that, so I’m hoping to bring that to the audience, to see the beauty of it’. Student theatre is never going to be perfect, but I think it’s at its best when it’s trying out cool stuff. This production truly is something really unique and interesting and I hope people did see the beauty of masked theatre and that we see more creative stuff like this in St Andrews in the future.


other erin


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