“I say, my lord, that if I were a man, their mother’s bedchamber should not be safe”
It may feel like I’ve been to all the theatres in London but there are so many fringe venues spread across the city that there are some that have yet to be blessed by my presence, the Baron’s Court Theatre in the basement of the Curtains Up pub being one of them. And when they announced an all-female production of Titus Andronicus, a Shakespeare play I have yet to see in order to complete the set, by Inside of Out, it seemed the time was ripe to kill two birds with the one stone.
Titus Andronicus has oft been described as one of Shakespeare’s goriest plays and quite frankly the numbers (according to Wikipedia at least) don’t lie: 14 killings (though just the 9 onstage), 6 severed members, between 1 and 3 rapes, 1 live burial and some cannibalism thrown in for good measure. But beyond the barbarity, there is a powerful story too of the corrosive impact of violence on society, of the devastating effect of two opposing sides unwilling to back down and what that does to the individual, the family and even the government. Shakespeare’s Titus is a Roman general who has returned victorious from 10 years of conflict with the Goths with their queen Tamora a prisoner, but a ritual sacrifice avenging the death of his sons sparks off a terrible cycle of revenge with Tamora whose unexpected new position as Empress ensures this is a power game with the highest of stakes, leaving no-one untouched.
The all-female casting was an interesting feature but actually had less impact on the interpretation as one might have expected when the focus remained on playing the character rather than the gender. There was perhaps a cast member or two who was guilty of over-egging the masculine gestures (I think there was more crotch-grabbing here than I’ve ever done in my whole life!) but it was rarely that intrusive. Leanne Rivers’ Scots Titus was a domineering figure, the returning hero brought low by both revenging and being revenged upon, a very human figure whose manipulations are perhaps the saddest to witness, human nature driven to its worst. Leah Harounoff’s portrayal of the much-maligned Lavinia was also powerfully done, so much conveyed without speech yet not overplayed.
I’m not entirely convinced the decision to have Tamora and her fellow Goths speaking in accented English was a great success whether through necessity or not, it hampered something of the clarity and strength of speaking: something exacerbated by Zoe Wellman’s Aaron, Tamora’s lover and so sharing many of their scenes, who had probably the best command of Shakespeare’s verse out of the entire cast and the best delivery.
With a fairly lengthy running time, it perhaps might have been preferable to have kept a greater sense of urgency to proceedings. The ever-present nymphs who floated in and around the scene changes, variously transporting corpses and plates of pasta salad, became a little wearing, increasingly feeling like they were delaying the progression of the play as did a few of the other innovations. But overall, the standard was impressive with an oppressive doomed atmosphere evident from the start, the use of musical flourishes sounding from all around the small space cleverly done and an interpretative device that complemented the play rather than being imposed on it: a good job all round.