It is a brave student that chooses to put on Titus Andronicus.
Shakespeare’s tragedy is a melting pot of everything horrible. There is rape, murder, dismembered limbs, cannibalism, insanity, decapitation and a whole load of nasty characters. T.S Eliot once proclaimed that it was “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written”.
With sentiments such as this, the challenge for anyone putting on a production of it is to use the ghastliness Shakespeare imagines in an intelligent, inspired way.
Set in ancient Rome, the story centres on the various families trying to out-atrocity one other. It is a confusing plot and unfortunately the cross-casting of key roles Titus and Marcus does not make it any easier to understand what is going on.
Not that these roles give disappointing performances; on the contrary, the commitment and intensity is incredible. Naomi Setchell, playing Marcus, gives a nuanced performance that evokes both sympathy and admiration, while Chelsey Little is harrowing, almost animalistic, as the handless and tongueless Lavinia.
The Goths are suitably cultish, arrogant, sexual, weird and evil. David Cochrane, as Aaron, is all of these things and worse. He creepily enjoys the pain and destruction. though his casually sociopathic behaviour does lower the intensity of scenes he is in.
This production has to be careful not to rely on the power of the performances of its lead actors, though. It is a fairly large cast of ten and some of the more minor characters lack focus, with a tendency to be carried away in the gory spectacles.
Helen Slaney, the director, has been innovative with this production, transposing Titus Andronicus into something of a post apocalyptic world.
She has definitely made the most of the Corpus Christi auditorium, with its stone alcoves and cavernous atmosphere. She has also cleverly overcome the obvious logistical problems this play presents, like a prop list that includes a decapitated head. The only hurdle left is trying to make some distractingly fake blood look more realistic.
This is not a comfortable production to watch. Shakespeare’s play contains one atrocity after another and watching it is a draining and intense experience.
It is this intensity, however, that is the greatest achievement of the production. They successfully sustain an atmosphere of horror with a few accomplished performances. No offence Eliot, but this production is neither stupid nor uninspired.