Titus Andronicus – June 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Yulio Ninagawa

Venue: RST

Date: Saturday 17th June 2006

Ah well, it couldn’t last. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Ninagawa’s work in the past – King Lear at the RST and Hamlet at the Barbican – but both of those productions used British actors, and Shakespeare’s text. I liked his slightly stylised approach, with great attention to detail, such that every part of the audience was considered. The pre-show talk was promising too, with Greg Doran chairing a conversation with Ninagawa and Thelma Holt, based on their lengthy collaboration. Even with translation, Ninagawa came across as direct, simple, vastly experienced and still open to learn, with a great sense of humour. Ah well.

I’ve realised from this year’s experiences that I need Shakespeare’s language to really enjoy his plays, regardless of the style of production. I know the Dream earlier used many languages, but there was enough of the original to make sense, and the performances more than made up for the rest of it. Sadly, not so true for this production of Titus Andronicus with Japanese actors and Japanese words.

In the pre-show, Ninagawa explained the difference between working with British and Japanese actors. British actors are more concerned with the text, and with analysing their characters’ backgrounds. If their character is putting a bandage on his foot, they want to know what type of injury it is, how long they’ve had it, and what that tells them about their character’s background. A Japanese actor would simply register that at that point in the play he had to bandage his foot, and carry on to the next thing. Japanese actors are more concerned about the physicality – what they do. Also, many Japanese actors are trained in one or other of the various Japanese theatre styles, all of which have their own rules and forms. They don’t find it necessary to be naturalistic. This possibly explains why I found such a difference between his previous productions and this one. The stylisation with British actors was more restrained – it was a new way of working to them and either they didn’t take to it so well, or Ninagawa realised he needed to go more slowly. Whatever. With highly trained Japanese actors, however, there was no holding back, and as a result I found the stylisation too much to take at times.

Before the action began, the actors had been dressing themselves on stage, in full view of the audience. Apparently some had also been wandering around in the foyer as well. Some of the actors practised running up and down the steps at the front of the stage, getting ready for the active parts of the play. As performance time neared, instructions in Japanese, with English surtitles, were issued through the loudspeakers, and the cast began clearing away the costume rails, and bringing on the giant wolf (see below). It was an interesting start.

The set was promising – very stark. White everywhere, with moveable walls and a HUGE white statue of a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, which was trundled on and off, and occasionally rotated. Wide steps led down into the auditorium, and the action flowed through the whole space – we were warned to keep the aisles clear at all times. The forest was represented by lots of large leaf shapes, with one large tree trunk in the middle. The costumes must have been hell in hot weather – the senators wore duvets, the soldiers were in several layers of armour, only the women seemed dressed for the heat. Red streamers were used to represent blood – very effective, and although I found it too much at times, I suspect that’s just because this is Shakespeare’s gore-fest, a proper revenge play, and lots of stage blood would have probably got to me as well. (Actually, too much stage blood and I start to worry about how the costume department is going to get it off the costumes!)

This time I was more prepared for the surtitles, and they kept pace with the action much better than before. I was also trying not to look at them so much, so that I could just absorb the performances, but I found it very difficult, especially as I’m not as familiar with this play. Perhaps if there’s another foreign version I’ll study the play in advance, although I won’t know how the director’s cut the thing. Anyway, this time I was able to concentrate on the performances a lot more, and again, there was a lot to enjoy. Tamara’s anger and lust for revenge was matched by her cunning and subtlety – forget Lady Macbeth, this one’s the real danger. Aaron, her lover, was kept very low-key at the start, but came into his own as the play progressed. He snarled and sneered his way across the stage like a comic-book villain, appropriate from a culture that adores those strongly drawn graphic images. I found it a little slow at times, though, as he drew out every snarl to its full extent, but then it did give me plenty of time to catch up on the surtitles if I wanted to.

Titus himself was effectively and movingly played. The old soldier, upright in his integrity, with a lifetime of service to his country through warfare, and, it has to be said, bonking – he has buried over twenty sons, after all. His political naiveté is evident from the start, and is an echo (or precursor?) to Coriolanus’ own Achilles’ heel. His ruthlessness in killing Tamara’s firstborn is also clear, and also recalls King Lear’s absolutism which is so sorely challenged and overcome at great cost. Whether these echoes are intended in this production or just part of my increasing experience of Shakespeare’s plays, I don’t know, but I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Titus’ emotional journey is also well mapped out. Without the understanding of the long speeches, it’s easier to grasp the emotions being expressed, and they come across here so much more strongly because of the stylisation, which allows the actors to go over the top. Grief here really is grief. In the previous Titus, one problem the actors faced was the lack of emotional expression compared with the mentalising the characters do. No such problems here – this is full-on emotional roller-coaster, with gore.

I was reminded once again how Shakespeare balances out the characters, no clear cut heroes and villains. Lavinia and Bassianus may suffer horrible fates, but they’re no innocent victims. Both show how unpleasant they can be – not to the level that justifies their murder and rape, but not beyond reproach, either. Tamara’s rage seems more intelligible here, too. And I enjoyed Marcus’ performance (Titus’ brother), especially the counterpoint of his descent into furious grief just at the moment when Titus breaks through to laughter – he’s done all his crying, now it’s time for revenge.

The scene with Tamara and her sons acting out Revenge, Rape and Murder was well done, and the humour was a welcome relief. With the final enacting of revenge, especially the murder of Lavinia, done very simply and movingly, the play finished stunning the audience, in all sorts of ways.

I’m glad I saw it, I’ve learned a lot from watching it, and from writing these notes, and I’m also glad I don’t have to watch it again. The question always is – what was Will up to when he wrote this? That’s what keeps me watching, that’s what drives me to go to so many different productions. I hope I never answer that question fully.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

2 comments on “Titus Andronicus – June 2006

  1. Peter Serres says:

    A backward look of your Titus Andronicus experiences led to this one. Ninagawa’s King Lear production left me cold. Crazy (rubber?) rocks crashing down everywhere in the storm scene and despite what you say about using Shakespeare’s text, the Japanese Fool’s accent reduced his lines to such gibberish that I couldn’t follow the dialogue at all. He couldn’t have been hanged soon enough for me. Poor Nigel Hawthorne.

  2. The rocks were certainly a strange choice, and given their tendency to roll everywhere, something of a hazard to shipping (or actors). I also found the Fool’s accent a bit too strong. Sadly, I wasn’t taking notes then, so the memories are fading, but I do recall being impressed by the work that had gone into making the performance visible from the Gods. It’s the only time we’ve been up there that we could actually see more than the tops of the actors’ heads, and the use of patterned lighting on the stage to create e.g. cobblestones or dappled shade was a lovely touch, and one we hadn’t seen from the stalls. The actors’ stylised movements had seemed strange first time round too, but then we saw from our perch upstairs that their costumes fanned out beautifully. Not enough to make it a good production if you weren’t enjoying the other aspects, of course, but worth noting all the same. Thanks for jogging my memory.

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