14 killings (9 of them on stage). 6 severed limbs. 2 acts of violation. 1 live burial. 1 case of insanity. 2 acts of cannibalism involving meat pies.
Shakespeare’s first play, Titus Andronicus, is not what anyone would call a light-hearted family comedy.
It is important to note that Shakespeare’s Titus, written between 1588 and 1593, was the young playwright’s attempt to “get in” on the popularity of revenge plays. All throughout the English dramatic landscape of the time, writers were hopping on the bloody revenge bandwagon, pandering to the bloodlusts of the masses with such delightful tales as The Spanish Tragedyby Thomas Kyd and The Revenger’s Tragedyby Cyril Tourneur (or Thomas Middleton, depending on who you ask). These revenge plays were filled with gruesome violence, malevolent spirits, ghosts and demons, and all manner of skullduggery and murderous intent.
Fun! Or, at least that is what Shakespeare clearly thought as he attempted to trump his fellow playwrights and create the greatest, bloodiest, most horrifically violent play the Elizabethans had ever seen! It was a smash hit, helping to solidify the reputation of the young Will Shakespeare as an up-and-comer and a talent to be watched. The themes of revenge, supernatural spirits and familial murder explored by Shakespeare in Titus were to, literally, haunt his work for the rest of his life, culminating (some would argue) in the greatest piece of dramatic literature ever written; Hamlet(wherein ghosts, murders most foul, insanity, suicide, poisonings and other shenanigans reached their Shakespearean pinnacle).
But Titus hasn’t always been received with such grace and respect. William Hazlitt, famed Shakespearean scholar and critic, called is “an accumulation of vulgar physical horrors,” and “the singularly faulty product of a playwright who was never again to write so badly.” TS Eliot declared Titus Andronicus “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written,” and the young Scottish poet Robert Burns was said to have “nearly gone into convulsions” when it was read aloud to him as a child (why anyone was reading Titus to a child is another question altogether.)
So it was that Titustook a few centuries off the boards, during which time the only notable or remarkable stagings of the play were almost all adaptations. For those of you who know Bag&Baggage, you will know that adaptation is at the very heart of our work as a theatre company, and it is only right and just that Shakespeare’s first tragedy lived on, through the slings and arrows of two hundred years of critics, in the form of adaptation! Once Titus arrived in the 20th Century, however, interest in the original script began to grow, and great actors such as Olivier were cast in stunning productions by the likes of Peter Brook, helping to re-establish Titus as a literary force to be reckoned with…thank you, again, Peter Brook!
Our production of Titusis an attempt at respecting the heritage of the script throughout the many hundreds of years it has been performed; there is something truly horrific and grotesque about the story (almost to the point of absurdity), but there is also something hauntingly beautiful and moving in the story, too. The challenge I faced as the adaptor and director of this play was to find a way to keep both the horror and the beauty, the grotesque and the graceful, the terror and the touching…what to do, what to do?
What we did was turn to Japanese Kabuki theatre for our inspiration. (It is important to note that this production is Kabuki-inspired; we would never denigrate the life of commitment required by Kabuki actors in Japan who live their lives in service to this ancient artform by claiming to do true Kabuki!) This ancient tradition of highly stylized movement is an ideal way to communicate both the grace and the horrors of the Titus story. By stylizing the violence and brutality, and by using the beautiful forms of Kabuki dance, the epic characters of Kabuki warriors and princesses, near-super hero like generals and villains, we hope to give our audiences access to the story without…well, without beating you over the head with the gruesome details!
There is something deeply moving about the Titus story; about the lengths that a parent will go to protect their family, about the cyclical nature of violence, about the overwhelming demand of vengeance and the impact of the horror of war. It is all in there, even if it can be difficult to find underneath all of those severed limbs and cannibalistic pies….
I want to take a moment to thank the cast for their hard work, Larry Kominz of Portland State University for his help with the Kabuki movement training, Christopher Stowell of Oregon Ballet Theatre for his advice on movement and dance, and Anne Mueller of Oregon Ballet Theatre for gracing us with her first post-retirement performance. Finally, though, I want to bow down in awe and gratitude to Tylor Neist of Red Sneaker Chamber Orchestra; my friend and colleague who has put more time, effort, passion and soul into this production than all of the rest of us combined. Nice work, Ty….that’ll do….
This production was made possible by generous grants from the Washington County Cultural Coalition and the City of Hillsboro. You have our thanks.
June 20, 2012