By: Angela Guardiani
Gentle readers, let's do a quick experiment. When I say, “Shakespeare,” what's the first word that pops into your head? Is it “classy”? “snobby?” “elitist?” It's true that Shakespeare these days can be presented in a pretentious, out-of-touch way, but Seven Siblings Theatre is doing something really interesting at the Citadel; their version of Titus Andronicus has a creepy sci-fi slant, with hints of Star Trek and Mad Max that are thoroughly contemporary and totally accessible to a modern audience.
A word on the play itself – Titus Andronicus can be both weird and difficult to stage. It's one of Shakespeare's earliest works, and unlike his later plays, the characters here exist only to wreak terrible vengeance on each other. The play is a revenge triangle between three groups; Titus, a career soldier whose life is ruled by violence and honour - Tamora, Queen of the Goths and Titus's prisoner of war - and the two squabbling sons of the recently deceased Emperor. And from this inauspicious beginning, things go straight to hell. The soldier, the queen, and the princes jostle for power, and they kill, mutilate, and rape for the sheer delight in seeing their enemies suffer. By the time the audience arrives at the final scene, there's barely a character left standing who isn't drenched in blood.
So when you have a play like this, so violent and so dependent on storylines that disgust modern audiences (the aforementioned rape, plus racism, plus honour killings...), how do you make it relevant? I just love what Seven Siblings has done; they've taken the whole play and placed it in a dystopian alien world. The bunker-like set looks and sounds like nowhere on Earth, and it's populated with terrifying giant insectoids and other bizarre human/creature hybrids. Five characters are played by puppets, but don't go in thinking that this is cute. The elder prince is a nearly seven-foot insect-like creature, hissing and clicking and moving menacingly across the stage in a way that could unsettle the most been-there-seen-that among us. I really can't say enough good things about the puppets and the actors that operate and voice them. The larger puppets require groups of two or three people to move them, and all actors share the lines, giving these characters a chilling, choral quality to their speeches. The actors aren't hidden, either. They're dressed in bloodstained rags and are connected to their puppets with hospital tubing, obviously unwilling donors for their alien overlords. It's such a creative idea, brilliantly planned and perfectly executed.
The human actors do solid work as well. The nominal villain of the piece is Aaron, Tamora's Moorish (i.e. black) lover, but it's her sons Demetrius and Chiron that bear the brunt of evil in this production. Reece Presely and Dylan Brenton play the young Goths as swaggering steroid-fueled jocks, and it works. The way they chortle and sneer and leer gave me goosebumps. Dorcas Chiu has the unenviable task of playing Lavinia, Titus' daughter, whose rape and mutilation set the play's violent endgame in motion. It's so hard to take a character like this one, who's clearly written as an object, and give her humanity and a measure of autonomy, but Chiu does it. Her interactions with Jamie Johnson as Titus were some of my favourite parts of the play. But the standout performance for me was Jordin Hall as Aaron. From the moment he strides on to the stage, Hall exudes a tremendous stage presence. He speaks in iambic pentameter like he's thought of the words only seconds before, natural, confident, fluent, and he moves with powerful grace. He is a talent to watch.
A rowdy Elizabethan crowd would have eaten this show up (pun intended!), so why not do something different and see a creative and bold production that advertises itself as a “supernatural blood bath?”
Titus Andronicus, a Seven Siblings Theatre production, plays until November 6th at The Citadel, 304 Parliament Street. Tickets are $25 for general admission or $20 for arts workers and are available at sevensiblingstheatre.ca.