5. Titus Andronicus
I must admit I wasn’t especially looking forward to reading this one. Although I’ve never read it before, I have seen a couple of productions and never been able to see it as much more than an excuse for grotesque violence. After this reading, my view hasn’t massively changed, though I do think it would be possible to direct an interesting version of it.
I’ll start with the redeeming qualities of the text! It is in some ways the purest revenge tragedy; in that it is almost entirely about revenge! Titus kills Tamora’s son as a sacrifice following a bloody military campaign, Tamora then plots revenge on all of Titus’ children, Titus then plots his revenge on Tamora in return – it is essentially a big cycling crescendo of revenge that takes ever more bloody and gruesome forms. In this respect, it does pose some interesting questions: is revenge ever enough? Is revenge ever worth it? Can the cycle of revenge ever be broken? What are you prepared to forgive?
Where the play falls down is that the characters and plot lack a lot of depth. Where Shakespeare’s later plays place revenge and murder in the context of quite developed political systems and personal struggles, in Titus Andronicus the context feels quite vague and unclear. The world of the play is a ‘pick and mix’ of Roman history with no specific setting or cultural identity – is it a republic or an empire? Is it Christian or pre-Christian? Just as the world lacks depth and clarity, the characters feel like little more than ciphers for emotions and brutal actions. Where a character like Macbeth has a compelling descent into villainy and megalomania, Tamora is just blood-thirsty and slippery throughout, whilst Titus is so ‘honourable’ and warrior-like that he doesn’t blink at the act of killing his own son in the first scene and his own daughter in the last. There’s no real journey here or character arc to draw us in and to play with as an actor or director.
This lack of depth is reflected in a lot of the dialogue and speeches as well. This is a play that contains an awful lot of what I would term “lamenting”. We hear a lot of people going on about how terrible they’re feeling with the result that a lot of the dialogue lacks any action to it. You even have several speeches where characters say they cannot speak because they are so full of woe or so chocked with sadness – yet in doing so they prove that they can speak after all… All text is at its best when it is driven by some action or a sense of dilemma, here most of it is just rhetoric with no real substance.
The one character who does have a bit more meat to him is Aaron, the conniving Moor. His language has much more sparkle and life to it than most. But (here comes the next problem with the play!) despite being little more than a middle-man or a source of encouragement to those plotting evil, he is saddled with essentially the entirety of the blame for all the unspeakable actions that take place in the play! This in spite of the fact that he didn’t murder anyone, he didn’t rape anyone, and he didn’t feed a mother a pie containing the meat of her sons!
So, in short, this isn’t a play that I’m champing at the bit to direct! Though, having said that, with a serious amount of cutting and re-shaping, there could be an interesting piece of theatre in here. I think you’d have to cut a load of the text and focus more on the physicality of the piece, possibly turning it almost into a piece of movement theatre. If you did that, there’s a chance it might be impactful. As it stands, I challenge anyone to make a production I’d actually want to see!