Review: Innovative Titus Andronicus swallowed up by big stage

The prologue in Titus Andronicus. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic
19 Oct 2013 @ 8.30 pm
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The prologue in Titus Andronicus. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic
The prologue in Titus Andronicus. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Review: Titus Andronicus
Venue: York Theatre Royal, October 17

Following a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival, York’s Theatre Royal Takeover team brought Smooth Faced Gentlemen to York with their adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser performed works, Titus Andronicus.

Andronicus is a strange play, sitting in the tragedy column on the list of Shakespeare work, but featuring all the elements of a ridiculous farce.

Ostensibly it tells the story of two families at war, but is a little more complex than that. Titus, our eponymous hero is a decorated military hero, back from the war with the Goths with their Queen and her lover in tow as prisoners.

Titus kills her son, and is then nominated as Rome’s new Emperor. He declines, suggesting Saturninus. Saturninus becomes Emperor, offers to marry Lavinia (Andronicus’ daughter) to seal the alliance: however she is already attached to Bassianus.

From there, all hell pretty much breaks loose. There are murders, deceit, shenanigans and a touch of cannibalism.

This all-female production was a whirlwind riot of innovation. A very simple blank set, featuring moveable panels (like the sunshields they use on cricket pitches) allowed for clear changes of location without cluttering the stage, allowing the company to get through the whole play in 80 minutes.

Although the play is very violent as it was written as a revenge tragedy (like the popular ones in Shakespeare’s time), dressing the cast like characters from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange didn’t work for me.

The attempt at playing it for laughs seemed a little incongruous for such a bloody, violent tale

In a play with 14 named characters, having them all dressed the same made it a touch confusing when several actors had to play different characters. Simply adding a scarf didn’t cut it, specially when they are covered in paint splashes from previous scenes.

There were several very good performances; Leila Sykes as Lavinia managed to convey more genuine emotion after her character lost her tongue and hands than some of the other actors did with tongues and limbs intact.

Special mention should also go to Emma Nixon, playing four characters, a difficult task she pulled off well.

I think my major issue was that this felt like a smaller production, suitable for Edinburgh, expanded onto a big stage, too big really. Some clever touches (paintbrushes as knives, leaving paint smears as blood) were undermined by the fact that this felt a bit like a student production who suddenly found themselves in a real theatre.

I’d be interested in seeing Smooth Faced Gentlemen (a nice twist on the Shakespearian model of men playing all the parts) take on some of the lighter comedies, plays I think would suit the gimmick better. The attempt at playing it for laughs seemed a little incongruous for such a bloody, violent tale.

Overall, not terrible, but not ground-breaking either. I suspect many others enjoyed it more than I did.