After watching the pretty dire trailer for Cabal Student Productions’ version of Titus Andronicus, I cycled over to the English faculty with squeaky breaks and a heavy heart. The trailer shows just how easy it is for a production of a tragedy (especially Shakespeare’s goriest, cruelest and most unflinching tragedy) to nose-dive into farce and stubbornly refuse to move from the stage floor of student drama. However, as I graced Lecture Theatre 2 with my presence (something I probably should have done more of in the daytime) I decided to wipe the slate clean. Even had I not, there was no escaping the competence of this production which bore little relation in quality to that trailer. It had the mighty and the low of the Roman and Goth empires clashing and mingling, deceiving and murdering in at times, grotesque and bloody glory, even if the shadow of farce was never quite eliminated (and perhaps it never can or should be.)
The play opened to Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower which set the aural scene for the 1968 US setting and showed how nicely it could work with the play (“there’s too much confusion / I can’t get no relief” as Jimi sings.) For the staging of a presidential election/choosing the successor to the Roman Empire, the lecture theatre was apt and the performances suitably commanding. Edward Lewis was especially impressive, playing Marcus Andronicus with a humble gravitas. On the other hand (sorry), Jimmy McConville was slightly lacking at times in the force needed for the eponymous role. To the rhetorical questions of these Roman elite, I saw audience members reply with appropriate nods or shakes of the head; they were undoubtedly engrossed.
A highlight of the production was, strangely, the audience, who produced beautifully in-sync gasps at the carefully staged multiple murders and rapes which could have easily become crass, but the emotional momentum was, for the most part, maintained well. Lavinia’s (Lara Panahy) bloody stumps and cascading blood were genuinely repulsive in a deliciously theatrical way. One scene which I felt could have been pushed further, though, was the revealing of her rape. Even a play of unrelenting depravity requires emotional variance. This should have been the pique of Titus’ grief, but fell a little bit flat.
As the play progressed, the Vietnam war-era setting seemed to fade (one brilliant exception to this was the use of paper aeroplanes instead of arrows.) Nevertheless, this did not really seem to matter as the link had already been made. There were some lovely tableaus of mutilation (the two women dead upon opposite ends of a long decadent table) and quality acting (Andrew Laithwaite as Aaron for example). To make the play even better, I think there could have been more cohesiveness between different acting styles. For example, Katie McGunagle played Tamora very powerfully indeed but less naturalistically than other actors.
On the whole, the immersive staging, the brave, unswerving portrayals of violence and good delivery added up to an enjoyable, if not an amazing production. Contrast and silence could have heightened the most dramatic scenes and kept the farce monster further at bay.
*** (3 STARS)