[Review:] TITUS ANDRONICUS, Barons Court Theatre, London.
For clarification, where ‘Aldridge’ is mentioned alone in this performance, this refers to actress Grace Aldridge; mentions of director Matt Aldridge will be signified by the inclusion of his name in full.
This review will consider Titus Andronicus, written, of course, by William Shakespeare, directed by Matt Aldridge with Jessica Rogers as assistant director, and currently being performed at the Barons Court Theatre.
Leaving this performance, I have mixed feelings. Some elements are incredibly impressive, well-communicated, artistic; others are terrible, unoriginal or underdeveloped.
I shall start with the positives. Certain members of this cast demonstrate great skill in acting. Namely, these are Sarah Beebe (playing Tamora), Natalie Halpern (playing Lucius) and Kieron Mieres (playing Aaron). Though this comes with a surprise, given that her initial portrayal of Tamora as a slave to Titus was not particularly strong – rather unparticularised, in fact – Beebe proves herself as a wonderfully talented actress, indeed, with her portrayal of Tamora as the empress. Aware of her character intent, incredibly expressive and confident in her role, Beebe performs with great credibility, vigour and conviction. Halpern has great emotional range and performs with vitality and excellent physicality. She is also the strongest insofar as diction, though this surprisingly cannot be said of her final scene wherein she has clearly given her enunciation and delivery too much thought. I would recommend addressing diction here, but perhaps without Halpern putting so much pressure upon herself; this is an important monologue, and the severe mispronunciation of ‘the gates shut on me’, which allows for the misconstruction, ‘the gates shat on me’…inevitably takes away from this. Nevertheless, Halpern is an impressive actress, sure of her role, invigorated and confident on stage.
Mieres is wonderfully expressive, credible and energised. He also handles interactions with the audience during his asides very well, clearly confident in his character’s intents and motivations. Unlike with Halpern, I would just pay closer attention to diction with Mieres; it is often difficult to comprehend exactly what he is saying. However, rather inexplicably, this vastly improves as the performance progresses, almost perfect by the middle of the second act. His contemporary idiosyncrasies, such as finger-snapping, and his laid-back disposition add a modern dimension to his character, as desired by this interpretation, but – and this is purely a directorial issue – this is in stark contrast with all other cast members, except perhaps Halpern, who remain much more neutral, and calmer, in their gesticulations. This makes for an incohesive set of character types and should be addressed.
Tyler Woods (playing Demetrius) and Ricky Hutchinson (playing Chiron) appear as though unclear of their roles in their first scene together, for their interactions are understated, energy is low and expressivity is minimal. I do believe, however, that this, again, is a directorial issue, with Aldridge wanting the duo to become more and more craven and ‘mad’ as the play progresses. Either this or the two are merely better at presenting caricatures over characters. Both are clearly talented performers, however, as they prove in intenser scenes that they can portray their characters with great credibility and conviction, their physicality extreme, their manic laughs wild. However, when I compare this great transformativity to all of the scenes they share with Mieres, character profiles are most understated, and this can also be said of their death scenes, though less severely. I would recommend that this sense of freneticism and ‘madness’ be present throughout with their characterisations, climaxing naturally along with the content. They should be seen throughout as unhinged, rambunctious tykes, not just in these scenes of assault with Grace Aldridge (playing Lavinia).
This brings me on to the negatives. I often struggle with modernisations of Shakespeare plays, not because I think such modernisations should not be done nor because I have a personal aversion towards this – on the contrary, I enjoy the idea – but because there is a tendency amongst theatremakers to modernise only a few, specific elements of the play in question and to leave the rest untouched. This leads to an incoherent and alienating reading. In this case, clothing is modernised, with performers wearing modern dresses, shoes and suits, yet content is not altered whatsoever. We are to imagine that these characters, appearing exactly as we do, somehow inhabit ancient Rome. When revival plays are modernised, as a general rule, all aspects should be recontextualised into a contemporary sphere. Modernisations of Shakespeare are usually most successful when locations and characters are altered completely, along with language, so that only the underlying content and theme remain. This enables the old text to have a second life of sorts, to speak to current audiences. The old text is instrumentalised to recall and explore the general human condition and nature, our history and how far we have come, and how past human actions, dealings and feelings can be identified, observed and reflected upon today. Or, more simply, the original texts are made accessible to modern audiences who do not necessarily understand the text’s semi-foreign tongue.
With performances like this that aim not to instrumentalise Shakespeare's text to benefit their own exploration or politicisation in this way, retaining proximity to the original text is key. The inclusion of guns as well as modern dress and the addition of lines only to incorporate the word 'fuck' into the 'new' text, all to add a sense of the contemporary world, do not constitute a successful modernisation, one that refreshes the old and presents it accessibly to the new. The decision to only modernise these minute elements yet to keep context, language and setting exactly the same is most fallible. For instance, in the late scene between Halpern and Mieres, tension is built incredibly well, and antagonisation, rage and conflict are portrayed beautifully, but the incorporation of modern language – again, limited to the word 'fuck' – simply feels too deliberate and corny and dampens the effect of an otherwise efficacious scene. This is simply needless, incongruous with the rest of the language used within this play, which remains chiefly archaic and poetic, true to Shakespeare's original text. Either modernise everything or nothing, all of the language or none of it. If decisions are made to only half-modernise the material, there should be distinct reasons for doing so and clear effects in mind; the mere desire to keep with the times does not offer sufficient context for half-baked decisions like this.
Govind Hodgson (playing Titus) suffers from a common problem amongst actors: he limits his expressivity entirely to his face, only expressing through the body occasionally. But even this facial expressivity is lacklustre, as is vocal expressivity. Not what is to be expected of a titular actor. Hodgson is notably unsure of his lines in places, delivering them with an inappropriate intonation or expression, and remains, overall, unimpassioned and unenergised.
I do not often use the word terrible to describe performers, as I find it rather harsh, but, unfortunately, it is the closest adjective I have to describe Grace Aldridge's portrayal of Lavinia. Conviction and credibility are completely lacking in this performer. She demonstrates a sheer lack of energy and realism, and expressivity, both corporeal and vocal, is underwhelming. She underplays her character significantly, with poor reaction timing and minimal stage presence. Honestly, I would recommend her role be recast.
When Lavinia’s husband dies, Grace Aldridge lacks corporeal tension and reactivity, failing to emote in accordance with natural behavioural patterns. We see little to no physical struggle when she is being restrained by Woods and Hutchinson, and her pleas to Beebe are simply unconvincing. I am afraid merely burying one’s head in one’s lap is not enough to portray fear and vulnerability. We need to see stiffness and tension across the entire body, to such a degree that we can see the limbs trembling; we must see widened, glazed eyes; we must hear bloodcurdling whimpers and screams. When revealing the names of her rapists, including when inscribing them in paint on the walls behind, Aldridge lacks urgency and expression. The sheer absence of such details like these is what destroys any credibility in Aldridge’s performance.
Nicholas R Obetsebi Lamptey (playing Marcus) and Stephen Reimer (playing Saturninus) are mediocre performers, I am afraid. Whilst the former has good diction, he does not perform his lines but merely delivers them, sterile and lacklustre, with minimal expressivity and a sheer lack of emotionality. Reimer does slightly redeem himself towards the beginning of the second act, when he demonstrates his ability to convey anger, but beyond this scene, he lacks a great deal of transformativity and conviction, often inert and expressionless. I would like to see more vitality and vigour in both of these actors’ characterisations. Whilst Gabriella Guymer-Davies and Josie Stephens are great comedic performers, they are far too understated elsewhere, and with Andre Frey portraying so many characters, I would have expected a lot more transformativity and character distinction.
Emphatically, all performers struggle to deliver convincing deaths, but there still remains here a range in credibility, with some performers demonstrating good corporeal awareness, tensing, struggling, squirming, and with others merely dropping dead instantaneously. However, I do recognise that this is a directorial issue, given that all actors, some against their obvious natural propensities, deliver a similar instant and silent death. Matt Aldridge clearly desires to minimise the gory and outlandish extremity in this play [something upon which I will elaborate below], and it is most unappealing. Where movement is concerned, I must also mention the terribly unoriginal and needless movement sequence between Aldridge, Woods and Hutchinson that closes the first act. The effect is not dramatic. This is a cheap, uncreative, repetitive, awkward and, above all, ineffectual scenelet that does not add to our reading in the slightest, especially given that Lavinia’s character will not have too great a function in this performance, and so this sequence becomes entirely negligible.
It is evident, with the white wall and flooring and with the 'weaponisation' of paintbrushes and sponges, that Matt Aldridge wished for a more artistic depiction of the carnage, almost painterly, as though the white stage were a Jackson Pollock canvas for a splatter collage of the characters' red blood. The reason for this decision, however, is incredibly ill-communicated, nay uncommunicated. With characters using knives and guns elsewhere, the threat of a red-soaked sponge is rather de-intensified and unclear. Merely pouring stage blood over the actors causes their characters to die. Why? With the rest of the action being realistic, with actors wrestling each other, tying each other in ropes, threatening each other with a gun to the head, such immaterial and symbolic deaths feel thematically and stylistically incongruous. Why have guns if they shall never be used? Why have Titus slit the throats of Chiron and Demetrius, only to wring a sponge over Lavinia to end her life? This adds an overly mystical and magical element to the performance that is not present in any other aspect but in [some of] the characters’ deaths. The effect, instead of feeling intelligent, inspired and artistic, is merely underwhelming; it is easy to feel as though a raw, gory and palpable death was simply unachievable due to lack of know-how, imaginativeness and performer capacity, and such avoidance led to these underdeveloped depictions. This is a gory play of blood-thirst and impassioned rage, and whilst the imagery of a bloodstained stage is a wonderful concept, how we achieve it is equally as important, and with several actors struggling intensely to pop blood bags on time, achievement is not a word I would use here.
I should probably mention here, too, that the choice of material to protect the flooring of the stage is terrible. Not only does it cheapen the aesthetic of the space, but it remains entirely dysfunctional and counterproductive to its raison d’être, prone to ripping. I understand that cost may have been an issue, but white tarpaulin, at least, would have been better in terms of structural integrity and wipeability.
Not only is this spilt blood devoid of the desired symbolism, but it also lacks visual credibility. I would recommend choosing a different brand of stage blood. The stage blood currently in use is far too watery and orange, better equating iodine than blood. Similarly, the fake hand representative of Titus’s amputated hand is far too artificial and oddly bloated. Further detailing must be added to this to make it seem more realistic, otherwise the effect remains as it was on the night I saw the performance, where audience members burst with laughter at the sight of it. Being such an intimate and close audience, lack of detail is extremified, and the result is a sense of over-artificiality and hence ludicrousness, resulting in humour. This is not desirable in this particular performance, which clearly aims to be very dramatic and tense, not comedic, as emphasised in the choice of music.
Whilst I do understand why rock music, with its rebellious and modern tone, was chosen for this performance, it remains incongruous with the specific performance style on offer here. Thematically, rock music is a good decision, but the visuals and deliveries we are offered are simply far too understated and calm to warrant this music choice. Transitions are empty and slow, often clumsy and awkward, and to pair this with rock music simply intensifies their inefficacy and the lack of action on stage.
Creating live works to be performed in the round – or, in this case, with thrust staging – always has its difficulties, and I am afraid that the challenge proved too difficult here. Topography needs to be far better considered in this performance, and this is chiefly the case for the final scene. Whilst I understand the decision to have the Emperor and Empress visible over Titus, so that the audience may have a good gawk at their deaths, deaths are completely understated in this performance, as I have written above, and so this rather negates this reasoning. Titus remains our main focus, and to have his back to a third of the audience is a terrible decision. This is the climax of this play; the audience need to see everything, with emphasis on the actions and expressions of Titus alone. To have merely rotated the table, to have had a rectangular table on a diagonal, or even to have a more modern buffet for which actors would be scattered around the stage, visible for all, would have improved this final scene. Or, indeed, requiring a less drastic transformation of this scene, to have Hodgson pace behind Beebe and Reimer, not in front of the centre audience, with his back to them.
Overall, intense scenes are handled well in this performance, except for most of those involving Hodgson, which is most unfortunate. There is a lot of work that has to be done, however, in order to make this play stylistically and visually coherent, and more powerful. I cannot help but feel that potential is limited and that aspects are underplayed – why so disruptively interact with the audience for the voting if this has no effect on the performance whatsoever? Why use guns and knives if the mere clench of Titus’s fist, popping a minuscule blood bag, can end the life of his daughter? Credible and talented performers make this performance genuinely worth watching, but the items I have listed need to be urgently readdressed.