You have to be a little cracked to stage this early and savagely raw play of Shakespeare’s. A kind of craziness is an essential mental and emotional component of a director setting foot on its gory landscape because that is the mindset of the majority of the characters who live there. Understand this, inhabit their wild-eyed vision and abused, abusing bodies and you have the key to the play’s scheme, if scheme it can be called.
Watching Zoe Ford’s production at the Arcola’s suitably rough-faced new premises by Dalston Junction, you quickly understand why the play was effectively outlawed in this country for three hundred years. You also realise that our own recent institutions were no less two-faced than Shakespeare’s politicians; our Lord Chamberlain was busily banning Edward Bond’s 1965 play Saved, in which a baby is stoned to death, while letting through stuff, hallowed by the Shakespeare imprint, which makes that look like a scene from The Teletubbies.
Ford and her cast of thirteen get the point from start to finish. The text has been – no other way of putting this – savagely cut – but entirely for its own good. Gone are some of the verbal excursions which sit oddly with the brutality of the action. Boldly, she has set it about thirty years ago so that it occupies that debatable land of contemporary history. The Roman warriors have been replaced by National Front psychos, all knifed-up, drug-stashed and combat booted. She draws black hilarity from the juxtaposing of domestic violence – actually, the only word is cannibalism – with the jaunty chops of Eighties house-band Madness singing “Our House.”
“Titus” tells a complex, sometimes rambling story of imperial succession, internecine hatred, covert love and brutal rape. This last, with Titus’s daughter Lavinia as the victim, is so distressing that it has the effect of making verbal response impossible. This tension between unspeakable events and the inadequacy of words seems to be one of the difficulties with which Shakespeare, not yet thirty, is wrestling. Lavinia would tell of her suffering through the spoken or written word, but she has had her tongue cut out and her hands severed.
The playwright’s craft was to mature beyond recognition in the next twenty years, but you can see and hear, sometimes graphically, his rehearsals for the jealousy of Iago, the despair of Lear, the pure malice of Lady Macbeth and much besides.
The front row is a dangerous place from which to view the carnage. There’s the risk of collateral damage from the fighting and the aggressive electioneering on behalf of Saturnius. His backers leaflet us as if we are the electorate and then his opponents scribble obscenities on the leaflets. As for the soldiers, whether they are officers or other ranks, they spit out the lines with a body language of matching violence. To a man they are the slaves of their own muscular swagger and sexual aggression. In almost all of them – including Stanley J Browne’s Aaron, Pip Gladwin’s Saturninus and David Vaughn Knight’s Titus – there is an animalism made more scary than the beasts of the wild by virtue of their machinating minds. This seems to telegraph such explicit messages as the play may have – above all that man is not to be trusted – with himself or with others. Don’t give them your vote, it only encourages them.
Like any director transposing high-born blood into street fighter’s veins, Ford runs the risk of lampooning the social context of the drama. As with Baz Luhrmann’s recasting of Romeo and Juliet into corporate America, it has to be done with total conviction. In this respect her cast could hardly serve her better. If Shakespeare was borrowing the style of Jacobean tragedy to tell us that nobility is a distracting set of trappings to disguise the behaviour of gutter mongrels, then you have to admire this production for its on-message radicalism.
Respect too for Rosalind Blessed’s powerful Tamora and Maya Thomas’s agonised Lavinia with her eloquent tongueless babbling. Also designer Nadia Malik for her derelict builders yard of a set.
Review by Alan Franks @alanfranks
Saturday 12th October 2013