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Published September 2, 2019

Content Warning: Titus Andronicus is a play by William Shakespeare that contains rape, body harm, amputation, murder, infanticide, gendered and racialised violence. Please be advised that this production will include this confronting content. It is recommended that any audience member concerned about this subject matter should familiarise themselves with the play before purchasing tickets. Please be advised that this production will include full frontal nudity, as well as physical and sexual violence, and self-harm.

A reviewer with any less decorum or respect for both theatre and what he/she does would summarize the ‘experience’ (and trust me, it is an experience) of Bell Shakespeare’s latest production of Titus Andronicus with four harsh and cheap words… ‘What the actual fuck’.

Luckily I am not that type of reviewer, and more so it is abundantly evident that what this production is trying to say and do is anything but cheap and deserves nothing less than the utmost respect from any person or persons who claim to be a student or lover of theatre, and the boundless ways it can be used to express the inexpressible.

Simply one of the most horrifying experiences of my life, I’d say ‘confronting’ is not the right word to describe Adena Jacobs’ incarnation of this first ever written attempt at a tragedy by Shakespeare; instead, invasive, horrific and down right Artaudian come to mind. Titus becomes a relative and individual experience for every audience member under the simply remarkable direction by Jacobs, exploring themes like parental (and foremostly motherly) connection, the physical and mental strains of love, revenge, hate, and a flirtation with their inevitable friend madness. All of which is intertwined with a brutal look at racial divide and prejudice, the sacredness of ‘womanhood’, and pride of self, family and state.

By softening the usual blow of the infamous rape and mutilation of Livinia as is written in Titus, Jacobs laid way for a (for lack of a better term) ‘rape of the senses’ of the audience, which was enhanced by the daring and icy original composition and sound design by Max Lyandvert, and the nightmaresque wasteland production design by Eugyeene Ten.

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Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Titus Andronicus (Courtesy of Bell Shakespeare).

The first quarter or so of this production after the opening scene is unfortunately quite dry and felt almost like it was rushed, trying so hard to do what the rest of the production seems to do so effortlessly. I didn’t quite feel present, and had difficulty understanding what Jacobs’ was trying to say or where her production was going to go apart from into the world of the absurd and ‘try-hard meaningful’, until a sequence laden with what can only be described as a disgusting visual poetry labeled simply ‘The Baby’. If only this moment of dawning had come sooner for the audience as alas, some of the more unseasoned to this style of performance left, unable to handle the bombardment of bloody imagery and the auditory equivalent of an overwhelmingly spicy curry as provided by Lyandvert. 

I do however feel that this dry rushed feeling could have been avoided with a stronger supporting cast, as some members of the company seemed not to know what play they were in, what they were saying, or why what they were saying had any meaning. But fortunately for us, the stage of Titus was dominated by the whirlwind and utter splendor that is Jane Montgomery Griffiths in the titular role of Titus Andronicus. Griffiths cannot simply be labeled a ‘force to be reckoned with’ but rather she defines what it is to be simply the best, and by doing so is the yardstick that all other supposed ‘forces to be reckoned with’ should be labeled and measured. Another notably strong and daringly confronting performance came to us from Cathrine Vän-Davies as the dark and yet playfully innocent ‘Clown’. I sincerely hope to see more of both of these performers and the work of Adena Jacobs in the future.

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Cathrine Vän-Davies as ‘Clown’ (Courtesy of Bell Shakespeare)

Overall, despite its flaws I dare say Titus was the most fantastic piece of experiential Artaudian style ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ I have ever seen attempted;; one that was pulled off with a clear and personal message that resonates differently in every member of the audience.

Titus Andronicus plays at Sydney Opera House in ‘The Play House’ from 27th of August 2019 to the 27th of September 2019.

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