Mel Brooks’ The Producers opens with Max Bialystok, King of the Broadway flop, reading the dismal reviews of his latest show Funny Boy, a musical take on Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Hamlet. As the lights went down for the opening of Titus Andronicus and the cast burst into song, for a moment one may have feared that the evening was likely to be a reprisal of Bialystok’s Funny Boy. Sadly, those fears were confirmed. All that was missing from the confected balladry was the all-female cast singing All The Nice Girls Love A Candle.
Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare’s first tragedy and his most viciously violent play. Done well, it can blend horror, humour and pathos into an evening of troubling yet moving entertainment. Jude Christian’s production however at the Wanamaker Playhouse (that theatre’s first Titus) is a pretentious attempt to sanitise the fabled gore, replacing blood and injuries with dumbed-down interpretation and chopped-up candles, playing for laughs at times when none are required and reducing the Bard’s brilliance to banality.
The now standard trigger-warning in the programme warns of the vast array of troubling themes in the play. The warning however fails to mention the extreme boredom and confusion that await the audience once the lights go down and the Wanamaker Playhouse’s famed candelabras descend...
Titus Andronicus is a play that demands the audience be shocked as a part of its structure. Typically this involves classy stagecraft, brilliant acting and, frequently, litres of stage blood, all combining to create the illusion of horrific human suffering. In Christian’s production the stagecraft is childish and trite, where rather than suspending our disbelief at the ghastliness we are supposed to be witnessing, Christian abuses it. The actors may be working hard on stage, but their direction has been lazy.
The classically trained Katy Stephens (reviewed as Tamora at Stratford on Avon in 2013) actually makes a decent fist of Titus and she’s matched by the similarly talented Kibong Tanji as Aaron the malevolent Moor. But that's it.
There is virtually nothing to redeem this take on Titus Andronicus, and compared to Lucy Bailey’s magnificent version of the play that last graced the neighbouring Globe's stage in 2014, it is hard to believe these two productions emanated from the same company. The Globe fail to promote the author of the lyrics that bookend the show’s two halves, which is hardly a surprise - the lyricist should be ashamed of them.
Runs until 15th April
Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell
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