Titus Andronicus is William Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy and one of his most bloodthirsty plays. It was even banned in Victorian Britain for being too violent as it features rape, mutilation, cannibalism and many deaths. Even today, it is probably performed less frequently than most of his major plays.
Unlike the better known trio of Shakespeare's Roman plays, Titus has no historical base. Instead much of the plot is derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses, specifically the tale of Philomel, who is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, has her tongue cut out, and by way of revenge feeds his son to him at a feast before ending her days as a nightingale. Another obvious influence on this early 1594 play is Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, which although not published until 1615 had been seen on stage for several decades by the 1590s.
Attending an opening weekend performance of the play at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, I couldn't help but think that this is hardly a work that will get anyone into a festive, Christmas mood.
The play is largely about revenge, taken bloodily and mercilessly. Following the death of the Emperor in Rome, his elder son Saturninus (Richard McDonald) is eventually chosen to succeed to the throne. He marries the Goth queen Tamora (Elspeth Turner), widow of King Priam, who has cursed Titus (Thom Brown III) because his sons sacrificed her eldest son. She conspires with her surviving sons (Ari Lew and Ryan Gorton) and her lover, a Moor named Aaron (Timothy Olin), to have the Emperor’s brother murdered, to get Titus’ sons executed for it, and for Titus’ daughter to be raped and mutilated. The scene is thus set for Titus to take his revenge upon her, her family, and the Emperor.
This should have been a thoroughly gripping production and it is in parts, but only because of some excellent performances, especially from Mr. Brown, who is exceptional in the title role. His Titus starts slowly, giving us an inaccessible General, tight as he can be, but by the time he relents to allow the son he killed to be buried in the family tomb, we begin to understand what his blind loyalty to Rome has cost him, and to intuit what it will cost him yet. He unwinds – unspools might be a better word – at the pace of a body falling to earth, but at the final moment, when his enemies seek to bring him down with a plot which takes advantage of his madness, he deftly steps away, and exacts his own unappetizing revenge. Brown does this all convincingly, and with great agility; in the end, his Titus, whatever his faults, is human like us, and we are moved by what happens to him.
Among the supporting cast, Mr. Olin makes a glitteringly charismatic Aaron, wildly exulting in his own villainy, while Ms. Turner brings a dark, sexed-up glamor to the stage as Tamora, the malevolent Queen of the Goths. Kudos as well to Meg Mark as Lavinia, who is a sympathetic figure and manages to avoid the pitfall of black humor for one so horribly mutilated.
Where the production falters is in director Rich Ferraioli's concept, which I am still uncertain of. During a number of scenes, I felt myself chuckling when I should have been moved by the drama. I suppose this show could be played as farcical or very black comedy, but then you need to direct your actors accordingly. I got the sense that his actors were going one way and his concept was going the other.
It is a pity, because everything else in the production works nicely. Aside from the aforementioned great performances, the scenic design by R. Allen Babcock is right on the money, the costumes elegant, and the lighting appropriately menacing.
Titus Andronicus is not a pretty play. Though Ferraioli has rinsed off the blood and guts here, there still needs to be the tragedy, the tragedy that dissects human suffering and puts it on display, making an audience want to run or avert its eyes or sob quietly about a man who has become a wolf to man.
Titus Andronicus runs at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City until January 9th. For information on tickets, please visit www.secrettheatre.com.