Writer: William Shakespeare
Director/Producer: Zoé Ford
Reviewer: Lucy Thackray
Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earliest and most violent plays, could be described as his first stab at tragedy (pun intended). With rape, mutilation, murder and cannibalism galore, it’s no Much Ado, and is rarely performed due to the physical violence scripted in, and the visual demands of this (one stage direction reads: “Enter… Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravished”). The Hiraeth Theatre company have upped the ante in this production by transferring the action to 1980s This is England-style Britain, a hotpot of skinheads, goths and black immigrants. The Etcetera Theatre, a stuffy, murky room over the Oxford Arms in Camden, is the perfect setting for this bleak and violent tale, where atrocities take place one after another on Nadia Malik’s stark set of construction-site fencing, bricks, one grimy 80s sofa and a lone St George’s flag. The sound of music blasting and punters drinking downstairs, coupled with the odd wail of a police siren, only adds to the atmosphere.
The play does feel long for pub theatre, although presumably abridged. You’ll shift uncomfortably on the bench seating as Titus, king of the skinheads (played magnetically by David Vaughan-Knight) encourages his boys to take revenge and defend his honour. His brother, the more wise and poetic Marcus (Garry Mannion) and his troupe of skinhead sons are a pitiful but almost heartwarming bunch; they hug, kiss, shed tears over their dead and generally wear their heart on their sleeve tattoos. The tribe that incurs their wrath, the Goths, is reimagined as a rag-tag band of Irish emos. Skinny-jeaned and black nail-varnished, brothers Chiron and Demetrius (Paul Kendrick and David Bevan) taunt, rape, sniff coke and do their mother Tamora’s heartless bidding.
The two females in the cast bring the most fire and sorrow to the piece; Rosalind Blessed is a formidable, scheming, sexy Tamora, a proper gangster’s moll pulling the strings of the new emperor, a slimy-geezer Saturninus (Alexander Neal). Maya Thomas as an edgy Lavinia – tattooed, athletic, quietly seething throughout the first act – draws the audiences eyes to her; the scene where she begs Tamora to kill her instantly rather than leaving her to her sons’ lust was tough to watch. Thomas handles her grotesque, mute, damaged rôle in the second act incredibly well, provoking tears and intense discomfort from the audience (there were even one or two who had to leave the room). The show is stolen, though, by the elder actors in the cast.David Vaughan-Knight’s Titus looks in wonder at the violent and injust world he has helped create, at turns mad, steely, joyous and loving. Stanley J Brown as the cunning Moor, Aaron, is charismatic and compelling. He seduces the audience into his way of thinking, playing the two gangs against one another and taking what is his in between. The skinhead theme boosts his motives and increases the tension between all in ‘Rome’.
The cockney accents work suprisingly well with the material, with nearly every actor completely on board with the Rodney-and-Del-Boy-meets-the-Bard feel. It never dips into EastEnders territory, but the themes of family, honour, revenge and gang violence are refreshed with this new setting. Daniel Martin’s use of 80s pop provides lightness and humour as well as intensifying the seediness and the hedonism of the violence and rape scenes. Only the use of Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover Hurt felt anachronistic; though the lyrics obviously suited the narrative moment, it did remove me from the loud, brash 80s world the cast had created. Zoé Ford’s production is bold, disturbing and unapologetic – expect full-volume violence and sex as well as beautifully-delivered monologues. A touch more chopping of the script here and there wouldn’t have hurt, but it has good pace and palpable tension. However, many will still find Titus a relentlessly violent and depressing piece – perhaps opt for a strong drink downstairs beforehand.