Presented by Fractious Tash
Directed by Ben Henson
Q Theatre, Auckland | May 29-June 8
Full disclosure: last year I saw the original production of this show at Unitec and was head over heels in love with it. It was on my top ten list of theatre last year, and going into this new production, there were still many moments that stood out vividly in my mind. Straight off the bat, this is a brilliant, inventive, brave production of an allegedly troubled play. So go into this review expecting a rave.
Titus is a heavily re-imagined version of Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, even though re-imagined is a little bit of an understatement. Fractious Tash’s production blows the play to smithereens and pieces it back haphazardly to reveal the angry, beating heart at the centre of Titus Andronicus. The show starts with the all-male cast playing a game of rugby (or a rugby-like game) with a teddybear, while one of the actors is pinned down on a stage and crudely given makeshift breasts made out of knee-pads. The game ends, we’re engulfed in darkness, and the play begins.
A huge amount of the credit for this production has to be given to Ben Henson. Under his vision, Shakespeare’s messy historical play has been turned into a visceral, powerful treatise on masculinity and the childlike need for us to take power and control for power and control’s sake. It’s a vision that percolates through the entire play, from Brian Maru’s demented playground set, to Jin Shin’s brutal sound design, to Madison Leigh-Wright’s Lord of the Flies-esque costume design, to Michael Forkert’s brilliantly cold lighting design. As jarring as any of the stylistic flourishes might seem out of context, like the use of Nicki Minaj and a truly bizarre Rufus Wainwright/Antony Hegarty mash-up, or any of the various ways of showing the many executions throughout the play, it’s under Henson’s direction that they become less flourishes and more part of his brilliant, mad vision.
The cast, again an all-male cast, work together well. The play really sparks into life when they’re all onstage together, and there’s something interesting going on with every actor, in both their face and their physicality, even if they’re not saying something. Paul Lewis as the titular Titus is an obvious standout; he radiates authority and self-imposed loyalty in the first half of the play and he handles an eleventh-hour character shift with a grace and lightness of touch that is stunning. His Titus is a terrifying monument to masculinity gone wrong.
The two other standouts are the actors playing the female roles, but this matters little. Cole Jenkins’s Tamora is so necessary for the play working; his darkly comic take on Tamora rounds out the play’s aggression with a knowing, ironic air and he throws out some of Tamora’s juiciest lines like a drag queen after a few vodka-and-tonics. It’s as distinctive a take on the character as Jessica Lange’s Kabuki-inspired one in Julie Taymor’s film adaptation, which is pretty much the highest compliment I could give.
On the other hand, Eli Matthewson as Lavinia gives the play a true, human darkness. From his initial innocent, childlike physicality combined with a syrupy-sweet Shakespearian voice, to his truly harrowing transformation mid-way through the play, he’s as necessary to the play as Jenkins or Lewis are. Through his performance we understand the stakes of the text’s violence and plotting, and his performance of Lavinia in the second-half provides the play’s most striking, lasting image: a little boy far beyond the point of being broken, standing and writhing in pain.
The rest of the cast have their own moments too. James Roque’s Saturnine is endearingly baffled, Jason Hodzelman’s Aaron is appropriately dark and sadistic, Jason Wu’s Chiron is hilarious and chilling barbaric, and David Sutherland’s Lucius gives the ending some real, chilling weight. And, as I said before, the play really sparks when all the actors are onstage. They’re all an utter joy to watch, despite the play’s darkness.
Fractious Tash also have to be commended for their bravery in bringing this production to the stage again. It’s a scary thing to bring a show out of the relatively safe space of a university production into a huge space like the Q Loft, and even moreso to do it with a heavily re-imagined version of a Shakespeare play, and even then to do it with this vision specifically. It’s a move that has paid off well for them, the production both has room to breathe and is more intimate in the Q Loft Space, and the response on opening night was ecstatic.
In short, go see this production. It’s brave, violent, fun, and I can say it’s the best version of Titus Andronicus you’ll ever see.