photo: Theatre Group
Titus Andronicus is an ambitious project. In an early attempt of Shakespeare’s to replicate the revenge tragedies popular at the time, the eponymous Roman general engages in bloody battle with Tamora Queen of the Goths, which sees almost every character gruesomely murdered. The play relies on gory spectacle and horrifying scenes of rape and brutality, designed to appeal to the bloodlust of Elizabethan audiences.
It’s a bold risk for LUU’s Theatre Group to attempt such a troubling play but thank god they did. This accomplished, thoughtful and stunning production is one of the most impressive pieces of amateur theatre this reviewer has ever seen. It gives professional productions a run for their money and that’s with a spec of a fraction of the budget.
Directors Alex Hargreaves and Max Bruges are acutely aware of their vision for the piece and the rigorousness of their understanding of the play is blatant. Every aspect, from each casting to every movement, is a clear directorial decision and the effect is a tight, stylish, incredibly impressive production. Visually stunning, the strict colour palette of red, white and black places us in a world that is decidedly stylised. The costumes, designed by producer Jocelyn Cheek, are exceptional. Bare scaffolding constructing the mezzanine gives a stark industrial feel to the proceedings: this is a cold and barren Rome bereft of compassion.
The actors themselves are all startlingly proficient, with not a single performance letting the cast down. The leading man, Rik Baker, expertly illustrates Titus’ descent into mental breakdown, his scenes of “madness” horrifying and hypnotic. Olivia Hickey as the Tamora is simply wonderful, switching in a moment from saccharine sweet platitudes to snarling, terrifying bitterness. Rarely have I seen such a convincing villain, and her performance as a mother begging for the life of her eldest son in the opening scene is utterly, sickeningly heartbreaking.
The play presents vast difficulties for a production, with the plot calling for the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, Titus’ daughter, who has her tongue and hands cut off to prevent her revealing the identity of her rapists. One shudders to think how a production will handle such a scene, yet this performance does so with aplomb. Sophia Popadopoulos and Elen Gibbons are excellently cast as Lavinia’s male assailants and Madeleine Grey’s performance as the brutalised girl is a masterful display of understated tragedy. Titus Andronicus is also a fundamentally racist play, the tragedy orchestrated by the inherently evil Aaron, ‘The Moor’. The production again handles this with expertise, for a spectacular performance from Chaila Chisabingo as the charismatic psychopath ensures that we identify with Aaron, finding his villainy deliciously attractive.
One struggles to find fault with this marvellous production. The gruesome stunts are ingeniously orchestrated and intensely choreographed, successfully shocking and thrilling in equal measure. It feeds our grim fascination with visceral brutality, yet knowingly understands the moral implications of catering to such desires.