Friday, 21 November 2014

Not a train wreck: thoughts on Titus Andronicus (generally and at the Black Hole Theatre)

Okay, this is sort of not a review of Black Hole Theatre’s production of Titus Andronicus. For the record, BHT did a really good job.  I recommend it highly.  This is more about musing on a) problematic plays in general, b) Titus Andronicus as example of same, and c) what I like about small theatre companies with limited resources and other ‘constraints’.

BHT is the University of Manitoba’s Department of English Film and Theatre’s theatrical production department.  Every year they do three full productions a year, contribute to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s annual Master Playwright festival, and several one-hour lunch-time, in a smallish space deep in the bowls of University College.  So mostly students under the direction of the Theatre Program staff, with limited resources. And an odd play space.

It’s interesting that they’ve chosen Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first and arguably bloodiest tragedy, for their season.  It’s problematic for a bunch of standard reasons—the principal villain, or at least the one who soliloquizes and monologues most about this motives, is described as a Moor, which as we all know from college Shakespeare is code for ‘black’ and ‘object of mistrust’.  Aaron, in fact, is sort of the archetype that Othello eventually turns upside-down, but with nearly equally tragic results.  

So there’s the potential blackface problem, and if not, you have to find a non-white actor who a) can do it and b) doesn't set anyone's triggers off. (Trigger warning, it's not possible to talk about this play without setting off someone's triggers.)  There’s the blood and gore problem.  There’s what could be a rather comical set of impersonations that are always hard to do with modern audiences.  By modern standards, the cast list is very long.  There’s the language.  There’s the (trigger warnings) the rape and dismemberment (thankfully off stage) of a central character who spends quite a bit of the rest of the play sobbing, shrieking, or bleeding.  There are more dismemberments on and off stage, as well as the the typical murders you get in a Shakespeare tragedy. There’s the limitations of space, the company, the money, and everything. But it’s Shakespeare.

This is apparently the first time anyone has mounted a full production of Titus in Winnipeg. Possibly Manitoba.  So when I first heard they were doing why they didn’t take the hint that no one mounted it. Maybe they were looking for the challenge.

Well, happily, not a train wreck.  Really well done, although (as is typical) some of the decisions were … odd. Like any production in a first run it could use quite a bit of tightening up.  Some of the actors were stronger than others, which is always the case in this kind of company, some of the actors were better able to embody and portray their characters, and get through their language and physicality, better than others.  But no one did badly.  I’d say everyone did pretty well or better.

In terms of stuff they got right, most of the central characters were handled really well.  We can argue about specific choices on specific lines or in specific scenes, and if you want I’d be happy to go one about it, but basically it was an evening well spent.

There are, literally, dozens of speaking parts, and one of the ‘problems’ is that even if you double everybody, you still have a fairly large cast for a small company.  They did it with 27. Which was more bodies than I’ve ever seen in that space at one time.  In many BHT performances it could easily outnumber the audience. Stuff that was sort of odd, but worked in context:  Except for Lavinia and Tamora, and possibly the nurse, the characters in the play, as I recall, are all men, but the cast many of them with women, and played a few of them as women.

Soldiers, Goths, random Romans, were pretty much equally distributed among the men and women. There’s really no reason for an occasional soldier, herald, tribune, supplicant, to be a woman instead of a man.  One of Tamora’s sons was played by a woman, which was an interesting choice considering (trigger alert) he is one of the rapists.  But Marcus (brother of Titus) was played as Marta, and played as a female.  Bassianus, who (trigger alert) doesn’t survive the first act, was played as Bassiana.

Marta works except that it throws off some of the verse, especially when Titus’s sons have to talk about Aunt Marta.  Bassiana is an interesting choice because she ends up marrying Lavinia (or intending to) early in the play. So there are places where they have to talk about Lavinia’s wife. Which isn’t a problem for a modern Canadian audience, but 10 years ago would have been more difficult.  It also throws off some of the verse. There’s a few substitutions of ‘brother’ with ‘sister’ but without also doing something about ‘brothers’, which bugged me, as someone paying attention to the verse and the language, but I’m probably the only one.

These are minor quibbles, and were interesting choices.  More odd was the choice to play the Goths, or at least Tamora, her sons, and Aaron, her attendant, as goth, complete with leather and fishnets and eye makeup.  The Goth tribals, when they show up in the second act (in this production), are wearing variations on war paint (potentially problematic) in black (potentially problematic) mostly dressed in camo fatigues (huh?). Which given their status a warriors was intresting, but it definitely took the edge off the goth thing.

They cast a tall skinny white guy as Aaron, the Moor/villain, who was having a little too much fun being a psychopath for my taste (several actors must have taken maniacal giggling lessons from the same teacher), but it worked. They did not, thank heavens, put him in blackface, opting to goth him up with tattoos on his face and neck (and elsewhere).  But then a major plot point occurs and they have to give him a baby son. And they used a brown doll.  And a lot of his speeches at that point become about dark skin and thick lips and slave imagery and so on.  This is problematic.

I’d have been happy with just a rolled up blanket and not doll. I’m fine with a white actor playing one of Shakespeare’s Moors.  The doll was … odd.

I’d also have been happy with fake blood. By which I mean symbolic blood, or suspension-of-disbelief-okay-I-accept-there’s-blood-but-there-really-isn’t blood.  But they went with regular stage blood.  Everywhere.  Between Lavinia spurting and spitting up, and the tossing of dismembered body parts around, there was blood everywhere. (Note to directors, using the severed hand to squirt blood at characters was effective, but a human hand doesn’t contain that much blood and not in such a sway as you can make it squirt by squeezing it.)

Stage blood is typically corn syrup and red food coloring.  And it’s sticky.  And for the rest of the play, you can see and HEAR the actors walking through the sticky blood and tracking it around the stage. Eye. Roll. At intermission, I expected somebody to come out and mop it up, but I guess knowing that a lot more was coming in the second act they didn’t bother.  But scrrrp scrrp scrpp with every actor’s every step was kind of obnoxious. As was watching perfectly clean costumes get stained out of context.  (For the record, wasting time mopping up blood between scenes would have been disruptive, so good choice there. But it is for that reason that finding Some Other Solution might have been a good choice. 

Lucius (son of Titus, and presumably father of Lucius, grandson of Titus—another problem intrinsic to  the play is just keeping track of all the Lucii—for those not familiar, they are a subset of the Andronici, but there are Andronici who are family and there are Andronici who are just followers, and keeping them all straight can be difficult, especially when the actors playing them, at any given moment, might be a solder, a retainer of someone else, a Goth, or whatever.  Anyway, Lucius) spent most of his big speech in the last scene stalking around the set (scrrp scrppp) with a napkin stuck to the sole of his boot.  Which so distracted from the gravitas of his speech, considering basically at that point everybody else has died.

So what am I saying? Titus is a rough play. For technical and practical reasons. It’s an early Shakespeare play, so combine the language problem with the not-precisely-well-translated-to-modern-audiences form, complete with the implausible plot elements, and plenty of—well, odd choices.  (One of which included, in this production, clown make up and fright wigs. Eye. Roll.) I mean, the play is difficult, the resources limited. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  And what they did was actually put together a really good small-company production of a very hard play.