The 2011 Stratford festival: Titus Andronicus.
From the opening Roman victory procession and bloody sacrifice, the production established visual contrasts that created the tension between the civilized and the barbaric. The fearful symmetry of revenge in Titus began in this production with the grotesque sacrifice of a Gothic prince and a mother's plea for pity. Titus entered solo, a long, hawser-like rope over his shoulder, pulling a funeral wagon, heavy with the load of his dead sons' bodies draped in white, the bitter but proud fruits of his long service to Rome. When the victorious, cuirass-clad Roman accompanying Titus pulled off the wagon's cover, caged captive Goths were revealed below the corpse-laden bed. In their midst, Tamora's oldest son Alarbus was pinioned, wrists tied to cage sides and head covered with a cloth bag. He became the representative barbarian, denuded of individual humanity, the symbolic sacrifice to atone for the loss of Titus's sons in battle. Rejecting Tamora's pleas for mercy, "[a] mother's tears in passion for her son" (1.1.106), (1) and under pressure from his living sons to revenge their brothers, Titus allows his progeny to "hew [Tamora's son's] limbs" (1.1.97). The stage sacrifice was brutal. A Roman standing atop the cage speared the Goth in the back like an animal. To heighten the horror, the killing occurred in expressionistic red light with blood gushing explosively from the wound and an ear-piercing scream filling the theater. While gore in Titus has a long stage history, this barbaric sacrifice undercut any pretense of nobility or piety, turning Roman virtue into a mere gilding of power's brutality.
Relying on Roman duty and tradition, John Vickery's Titus was suitably martial and masculine in his sang-froid rejection of Tamora's pleas for mercy and in his insistence on maintaining protocol in electing a new Emperor. On the other hand, he seemed merely hard-headed and foolish in rejecting the imperial crown when offered to him. By refusing to take political power, Titus ironically undermines the Rome he fought for, allowing a different breed of men to emerge at the center of Roman power: the weak, self-indulgent Saturninus and the easily manipulated punk Gothic princes, Demetrius and Chiron. Though Titus seeks to "ripen justice" (1.1.227) in supporting Saturninus for emperor, he mistakes primogeniture for justice. In giving his daughter, Lavinia, to Saturninus in marriage despite her passionate bond with Bassianus, Vickery's Titus self-righteously gave the living female symbol of his masculine honor literally into the hands of the fickle, selfish Saturninus. His folly became quickly apparent as Saturninus looked lecherously at the feral beauty of the prone, bedraggled, near-naked Tamora, even as he held Lavinia's hand in gloating triumph over his brother Bassianus. Spotlighted center stage with flute music backing the actions, Saturninus chose to raise Tamora, literally and figuratively, making her his new empress. Thus, Lavinia as well as the loyal Titus are humiliated.
With this shift in power early in the play, the production took its signature turn toward undermining civilization and gender roles. While Tamora's maternal pleading failed, her raging desire for revenge turned to calculating sexuality as she provoked Saturninus's lust and consequently became his empress. Using throaty sexuality, Claire Lautier's Tamora put the barbaric Goth in the position to manipulate the central figure of Rome. Moreover, she placed her libidinous sons in royal positions which allowed free rein for their lust to serve her revenge. Throughout the rest of the play, Tamora clearly controls Saturninus, played by Arbuckle as a grotesque image of imperial power with near comic drunken behavior; wearing his laurel crown askew and carrying a goblet, he made staggering entrances and slurred words. His Saturninus underscored the fact that the source of justice itself in the glittering center of the civilized world is unreliable and capricious; in bonding himself to Tamora, he allows Rome to become in Titus's words "a wilderness of tigers" (3.1.53). Clearly impaired and unseemly, Saturninus proved easy prey for the vengeful Tamora whom Lautier played with both disdain for the unmanly Saturninus and closely controlled rage at the self-righteous Titus. When in sumptuous imperial garb, Lautier's sometimes cool, sometimes sexually bold Tamora became more the barbarian as she inspired horrific violence in men to serve her revenge. While using her sexuality in a calculated way to manipulate Saturninus, she revealed her own hot animal desires when she conspires with her attractive, cynical Moorish lover, Aaron, played bare-chested and buff by Dion Johnstone. As they grope and mount each other in the woods while waiting to commit murder and rape, Tamora and Aaron became an image of primal human instincts: love and violence entwined on the stage floor.
As Tamora's other self, Johnstone's Aaron was the most powerfully masculine character in the production, using reason to shape violence. He was coldly aloof and clearly amused as he manipulated the lust of the comic-grotesque Gothic princes, Chiron and Demetrius, to serve his pride and Tamora's revenge. Aaron's plan to rape the virtuous Lavinia revealed his cunning and mocked the false masculinity and nobility embodied in Murray's and Godfree's portrayal of Tamora's sons. With Aaron onstage, Tamora's two remaining sons entered in mid-thigh length, gold lame tunics, looking more like 60s go-go dancers than nobility. The tunics seemed satiric images of civilized luxury, glittering but somehow embarrassingly inappropriate for male royalty. While Aaron watched bemused, the princes brawled comically, like two spoiled brats, biting and gouging each other as they vied for the right to love Lavinia. This scene played on audience memory, recalling the play's opening spectacle in which other brothers, Bassianus and Saturninus, fought for political power like street punks. Aaron's butting the prince's heads together like some WWE enforcer added another violent, but laugh-producing, touch. Here, as in the scenes with Saturninus and Tamora, Tresjnak links horror and laughter to mock masculine power. The production seemed calculated to draw the audience into complicity by provoking an uneasy laughter to undermine the moral revulsion that should accompany plans to rape and mutilate.
While Tamora uses Aaron as an agent of her revenge, appropriating masculinity for her own ends, Titus appropriates Lavinia's womanhood as symbol of his masculine honor and as agent of his horrible revenge. From the opening scene, Lisman's Lavinia stood apart, a pristine presence seeming to hover above the crazed Roman power struggles. Garbed in a brilliant white tunic during the opening sequence as Bassianus and Saturninus initially squabble over the Roman throne and her hand in marriage, Lisman's Lavinia remained rather static, the chaste sign of her father's honor and his commitment to Roman civilization. Her brutal rape and mutilation by Demetrius and Chiron violate Titus, too. Done in graphic stage action that produced shock and revulsion, the princes mounted her like an animal before dragging her offstage. When she returned, tongue cut out and hands lopped off, blood spilled from her mouth and the stumps of her arms, reinforcing the horror. Though mute, Lisman's Lavinia communicated the depth of her violation in wordless poetry as she stood rooted center stage, a quivering mass of horror, burbling blood.
Later, as Titus plots his horrible revenge, Lavinia sat, her white tunic glowing under the bright stage lighting, like a marble statue on a cemetery monument. While silent, her presence was powerfully felt, as if she were the muse inspiring Titus's vengeful imagination. Like Titus, the audience saw her in the moment and in memory, her seeming tranquility overlaid with the horror of her rape in a sort of theatrical double exposure. Lavinia's role in Titus's plot to defile and destroy Tamora and her sons proved that revenge is not just the domain of Goths dressed up in Roman imperial clothing. In the violation of the Gothic princes, Lavinia, the model of Roman honor and the most traditionally feminine character onstage, transcends her socially determined gender role. Ironically, garbed in flowing white robes, looking virginal, she inflicted a bloody revenge in highly sexualized terms on Tamora's rapist sons. As they are held kneeling and bent over a bench, she positioned herself several yards behind them on the long thrust stage, her stumps covered by flowing white sleeves. As if stone, she stood, glowing and grimly white. Then, raising her arms slowly, she revealed the long, shining blades that have replaced her hands. Finally, breaking her long silence, she unleashed a furious primal scream and charged forward toward Tamora's defenseless sons. As she ran toward them, the audience gasped audibly at the prospect of a bloody, violent rape of their manhood as the stage went dark. Thus, the whirligig of time brought in its revenges and Lavinia, too, becomes an agent of the barbaric. While staging of a male rape may have served poetic justice, Lavinia now served as an avenging fury that undermines civilized notions of justice.
In the final scene of this production, mayhem reigned as Lavinia and Titus presided over a most uncivilized banquet that served his revenge, quite literally. As in scenes of horror throughout the production, Tresnjak used comic moments to both distance the audience and implicate it in the process of using civilized behavior to assert power brutally over others. The cage that imprisoned Goths in the opening scene and later Titus's sons reappeared, now serving ironically as the banquet table that furnishes Titus's horrible human pies. As host and chef, Titus tantalizes both the audience and his power-drunk guests, Saturninus and Tamora, with the promise of "two pasties" that we know but they do not are made from the Gothic princes' "shameful heads" (5.3.188). In the confines of the Tom Patterson Theatre, whose long thrust stage brings the audience close to the action, Titus ordered appetizers of human flesh passed around and waiters drifted into the aisles to offer the audience the abominable pastries. But the ghastly laughter died fast as Titus coolly killed a compliant Lavinia, thus ending her shame and his. His revenge quickly racked up the corpses and the stage broke into a barroom brawl with nobles and attendants swirling madly across the stage, a banquet with a buffet of killings and suicides.
The productions chaotic closing sequence at first bewildered the audience as murders abounded in all sectors of the stage; however, Tresnjak's interpretive edge is clear. Aaron's cynical assessments of humanity and Roman civilization were generalized in the figures of Lucius and Young Lucius, Titus's son and grandson. These two progeny of Titus led the swirling violence against family enemies. Young Lucius, played by the young, slight, blond-haired Talen de St. Croix, moved sprightly among the dying, grabbing hair and then slitting throats, administering the coup de grace to Tamora and Saturninus with highly theatrical flourishes. Indeed, the one character who knit the melee together in the audience's eyes, who gave it form and meaning, was Young Lucius, garbed angelically in a brilliant white toga. It was disconcerting to see this small, innocent-looking figure so swiftly bustling around the stage completing bloody family business. The thirteen bodies that littered the stage revealed the ultimate descent of civilization into barbarism. Murder is in the blood, the hectic never fully removed by civilization.
The coda to the play's violent action added a comic touch that drove home the point: a monster lies not far below our civilized surfaces. As Lucius was about to exit, he took the imperial wreath, but failed to complete the text's full speech about his desire as new emperor to "govern so / To heal Rome's harm" (5.3.146-47), leaving the audience in doubt as to civilization's future. Instead, he aborted the speech and exited the platform with his now-bloodied son. As he passed the audience on his way to an auditorium exit, Lucius nonchalantly crowned an audience member with the wreath and the power and justice it alleges to symbolize, as if to say, "There's no way I can do the impossible, maybe you'd like to try, eh?" or perhaps, "We are all in this bloody business together."
Stratford's 77tus harkened back to Elizabethan productions of bloody revenge with a comic admixture, a distinctly 1590s, Marlovian influence also found in Richard III but it also participated in the play's modern production trend of mixing comedy and horror and emphasizing the central female characters that began with Deborah Warren's 1987 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Following Warren's interpretation, Tresnjak shaped this Titus into a grotesque vision of a political world gone wild as the populace watches barbarism disguised as civilization's triumph.
(1.) All references to Titus Andronicus are from The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).
Owen E. Brady, Clarkson University
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|Author:||Brady, Owen E.|
|Publication:||The Upstart Crow|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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