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Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus introduces a lot of questions for a potential director to solve: should Shakespeare’s early gore-fest play in a comic or a tragic tone? How many of those long speeches do we really need to keep? And is Shakespeare in his earliest form— sans complex characters, sans truly stirring poetry, sans subtle thematic commentary— really what we want from Shakespeare at all?
In some ways, this relative blankness, the story of a Roman general and his enemy Empress, locked in an apparently ceaseless cycle of violent revenge, makes Titus a more useful play than most for a director to inscribe their own aesthetic ideas upon. For Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s production, now playing at the Greenwich Theatre after previous spins at the Edinburgh Fringe and in Buxton and York, that aesthetic is stark and spare: white walls, white shirts with black braces and trousers, red paint to stand in for blood. And a cast entirely made up of women.
Unlike Phyllida Lloyd’s critically acclaimed all-female productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV set in a women’s prison, the Smooth Faced Gentlemen don’t feel compelled to qualify their casting choices. Just as the Globe and Propeller are allowed to present all-male Shakespeare without explaining why, this Titus offers no frame, no commentary for its casting– it simply is.
Some may argue that this is not an entirely fair comparison. All-male Shakespeare is, of course, the original version. But the assumption that this would have been an unquestioned fact for Shakespeare’s early audiences has come under relatively recent critical scrutiny. Acting companies on the continent had women, after all, and travellers to France and Italy, including travelling players, would have seen women onstage alongside men. In fact, one might not have had to go even that far: women performed in court dances and masques (though they did not speak), and there is evidence they performed in civic and guild pageants as well. If you look beyond London, all-male theatre seems to become the exception, not the rule. So maybe Shakespeare’s audiences didn’t just sit back and take the all-male companies as “normal” the way we do mixed-gender companies today. Maybe they were also always aware of a baseline level of artifice that more naturalistic casting elides.
If that sensation is what single-gender casting seeks to restore, then all-female casts are no less capable of doing it than all-male ones. This fact is emphasized in this production by the rapid-fire scene changes at the beginning of the play, which derive in part from chopping up the very long first group scenes into a series of smaller, more intimate ones— a choice presumably borne of necessity due to the small cast, but one which also neatly sets up the “rules” of the very tight double-casting, introducing the props and costume pieces which will serve to differentiate between the multiple roles each actor plays. (Deserving of special mention here is Emma Nixon, who I believe was killed three separate times before the interval.)
By leaving the serious work of differentiating between characters to the actors themselves rather than their costumes— and by not giving the female characters a different base costume than the male ones— director Yaz Al-Shaater and costumer Natalie McCormack highlight the degree to which all the characters are playing a role, desperately trying to prove that they are different from the enemies they are so determined to kill. But we can see clearly that there is no real difference between them. This fact accounts, in a way I have not seen before, for the deep current of violent madness which propels the play forward. Only the thinnest pretense separates the horrific deeds of one character from those of his enemy; only the weakest rituals (like the easily corrupted election that begins the play) elevate them above their apparently brutal inner natures.
The only characters to face this truth head-on are Titus himself, the Empress Tamora, and Aaron the Moor, the Empress’s lover. Played respectively by Ariane Barnes, Olivia Bromley, and Anita-Joy Uwajeh, they come to gleefully embrace the essential viciousness of mankind. They are also (thanks to the excision of Titus grandson, a minor character) the only parents in the play. Titus Andronicus repeatedly features characters torturing and threatening a parent via their child, and the repetition feels particularly stark here; it suggests, in direct contrast to the redemptive visions of fatherhood Shakespeare wrote near the end of his career, that having a child— and being forced to protect it— only opens one’s eyes to the depravity of the world and its people.
But thanks especially to Barnes’s tremendous (and tremendously mad) Titus, the tone remains startlingly humorous for much of the play. Many of the characters are really very funny, and with the exception of the feelingly delivered scene in which Titus’s brother (Ashlea Kaye) discovers his ravished niece Lavinia (Elly Condron) in a forest, the orgy of violence made me gasp and cringe, but not weep. The violence is not mocked, however, and the gloopy, viscous paint somehow makes it all seem even more horrifying— but there’s a strange delight in that horror.
This is what I find to be the greatest difficulty with Titus Andronicus. One must care enough about the characters to remain engaged, but not so much as to demand an emotional reckoning from their brutal slaughter; the text simply does not deliver this. If forced into the naturalistic terms audiences today expect in our drama (and into which so many Shakespeare plays can be more easily moulded— though whether they should be is another question), it just doesn’t make sense. But the play’s refusal to cohere with naturalistic expectations makes it a good match for the self-aware theatricality of an all-female cast.
Combining this casting with a blistering 90-minute run time and some truly striking theatrical coups (Enric Ortuño’s fight direction in particular is crisp and effective, and the paint is repeatedly put to good use), Smooth Faced Gentlemen draw the most out of a Shakespeare play that, frankly, doesn’t have much to it. The fact that it left me wanting more is a criticism of the play itself and a compliment to the ensemble producing it: this shallow revenge tragedy has me looking forward immensely to this summer, when they will pair Titus Andronicus with one of the truly great tragedies, Othello. A play as much about misogyny as racism, it raises questions about all-female casting that neither of Phyllida Lloyd’s hyper-masculine play choices were troubled with. Some of them are questions that this Titus has already begun to answer, and which demonstrate the power of single-gender casting: what does it mean when the only thing differentiating you from the thing you hate or fear to become (be it Roman, Goth, or, the dreaded phrase frequently repeated in Othello, not a man) is just an outfit? After this first taste (bad word choice, given the play?), I’m eager to see how Smooth Face Gentlemen continue to find answers.
Titus Andronicus played at the Greenwich Theatre from April 28 to May 2. The production will be touring later this year to Buxton, Edinburgh and York.