Carnage, cruelty & catharsis

Blue Canoe’s twisted rendition of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s most gruesome tragedy, is worth its weight in gore

Nat Fried plays Aaron in a play that packs so much kick it will leave you speechless.
Nat Fried plays Aaron in a play that packs so much kick it will leave you speechless.
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“When will this fearful slumber have an end?” asks Titus Andronicus in Act III of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Unless you have the stomach to brave this infamous circus of nightmares, you may ask yourself the same question as you watch Blue Canoe’s daring production, on now at the Wellington Street Theatre.

Titus is a notoriously gory bloodbath that emerged from the spectacle-obsessed Elizabethan London where approximately 14 per cent of the population was at the theatre every day. In modern-day Torontonian terms, that would be as if an astounding 420, 000 people took the afternoon off work—filling 21 Air Canada Centres to the rafters—on a daily basis, demanding entertainment.

When it comes to entertainment, Titus most certainly obliges—if you happen to enjoy iron-man marathons of slaughter and rape. The play includes 14 murders, three severed limbs, a few counts of cannibalism and incest to boot. It details the systematic destruction of one man, Titus Andronicus played by Robert Elliott in Blue Canoe’s production. Titus arrives home a conquering Roman war hero and ends up stripped of the trappings of his exemplary masculinity—formidable authority, a chaste daughter, legions of sons and a virulent body, for example—and winds up dead. Along the way, audience members are invited to meditate on the nature of our ideological constructions of civilization, barbarity and masculinity.

But the play isn’t all fun, games and deconstruction; these meditations make Titus so relevant today director Ryan LaPlante said. The political polarization that occurs in Titus between insatiable appetite and rigid control, is entirely applicable to the current state of global politics.

“In Titus, the most reasonable characters survive,” LaPlante said.

Ostensibly, liberal-democratic governments should espouse this ever-elusive principle of “reasonableness”—floating somewhere in the ether between warring political factions—in their governance. Now if we could just agree on what being reasonable means, we could all sit down to a picnic of flying ham sandwiches and hellfire ice cream.

As delicious as that sounds, the staging of Titus at the Wellington Street Theatre is, at times, less than ideal. The cobbled-together beige set incorporates boxy pieces that move about with each act, but it isn’t always entirely apparent why they move or what their movement signifies. The second act makes much better use of the portable pieces, but at first they are all but redundant. There is, however, great use of the upper balcony above the main stage, an aspect that can make plays performed at the Wellington Street Theatre quite visually interesting while allowing for added communication of meaning to be injected into the stage directions. But the best part of the production aspect of Titus is the sound design, which is strangely and suitably evocative of Pink Floyd. This is a rather fitting allusion given that the play’s events are surreal and seem totamper with reality.

The pièce de resistance, however, lies in the characters of Chiron and Demetrius as played by Alyssa King and Matt Stewart respectively. These two play the incestuous spawn of Tamora, the captured Goth-turned-Roman Empress. While in the play’s original text, Chiron and Demetrius are brothers whose homoeroticism is never made textually explicit, LaPlante’s decision adds an unexpected twist to the already crooked plot by giving these characters a graphically incestuous heterosexual relationship. Although their performance may be rather trying for those who are weak of stomach, King and Stewart hold their own in their depiction of all that society labels as vile and unnatural.

Sarah Bruckschwaiger,who plays Tamora, has a stage presence that can’t be denied. She plays the imperious and opportunistic queen of the Goths, seamlessly switching between the saccharine and the treacherous, commanding audience attention throughout. For a cunning, villainous trollop unlike any other of Shakespeare’s female characters, Tamora is a force to be reckoned with and Bruckschwaiger does the character great justice.

In some productions of Titus, the excessive violence can sometimes come off as farcical. Indeed, when it was first performed in the 16th century, productions of Titus made full use of the buckets of readily-available animal blood from the London slaughter houses as well as marzipan reproductions of the various limbs that are lost throughout the play in order to make the violence seem as realistic as possible without falling into a pit of gratuitous slapstick comedy. The Blue Canoe production does a bang-up job of walking the thin line the play lays down on the fissure between nausea and hilarity. LaPlante’s production of Titus Andronicus is an entertaining rendition of Shakespeare’s first tragedy with great end-results given the difficulty of the play both in language and content. Although there are at times when formidable characters like Titus himself are overshadowed by the villainous family—though Elliot’s performance comes into its own in the second act and becomes much more gripping—and it lacks bloodied marzipan appendages and an inspiring set, Titus is a show worth taking the afternoon off for. Although the action kicks off with an attempt “to set a head on headless Rome,” be prepared for the heads to roll all over the place.

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