I’ve had many dramatic daydreams in the English Faculty’s Lecture Theatre 2, but never thought to make them reality. Director Richard Elliot and Assistant Director Esme Hicks are doing just this, transforming a basement teaching space into the site of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy and revising the function of an end-on performance space to create a much more interactive experience, Goths and Romans entering through the audience, characters appearing above the audience in the balcony.
It sounds exciting and dynamic, very different from your typical Shakespeare lecture, but the university setting provides a further function. Elliot has chosen to set the play in 1968, in the wake of student radicalism (think Jimi Hendrix, Richard Nixon, Vietnam). The idea is to bring out the culture clash of the two communities, at the expense of questions of race and imperialism. Aaron’s (Andrew Laithwaite’s) blackness is metaphorical. His charisma, Elliot explains, is that of the revolutionary rock star. Rome is the elitist establishment.
In preview this interpretation isn’t too domineering and I hope the point isn’t hammered home too hard in the final piece. It could cheapen what looks to be shaping up to be a very successful production. What worked well in the scenes I saw was the energy of the cast and the strength of the acting. Katie McGunagle (Tamora) was particularly engaging, maintaining a queenly dominance even while attempting to seduce the equally authoritative Laithwaite or instructing her sons to rape and maim. Lara Panahy, as Lavinia, was also convincing, especially in the scene following her mutilation – a testament to the attention I felt had been paid to working on the physicality of all the actors’ performances.
This is certainly no Shakespeare recital. The actors are always active and personal space continually invaded. This can lead to a few problems. Bassianus and Chiron (Matt Broomfield
and Anirudh Mandagere) seem less menacing the longer Lavinia pleads with Tamora for mercy because there is little way for them to go once they have started manhandling their victim. These issues can easily be ironed out in the week leading up to the performance. My advice to the cast would be to concentrate on their reactions. Line delivery is uniformly strong but some more thought needs to be put into their responses while silent.
Joseph Prentice (Titus himself) was slightly disappointing in the one scene I saw him in, seeming a little too reasonable given the tragedy surrounding him. Out of the context of his character’s development throughout the play, however, it was hard to judge whether this was a conscious decision or indicative of a slightly limited emotional range. The responses of Panahy, Edward Lewis (Marcus) and Sarah Smierciak (Young Lucius) were all spot on, though I felt the girls were a little inhibited by the awkward staging in the fly killing scene.
The coherence between such a large cast was impressive and the preview entertaining – I would happily have watched much more and think the production’s youthful energy will appeal to those who may find the plot unfamiliar. If the team can turn their innovative performing space to their advantage and not lose sight of the primacy of performance, rather than period setting, this production may be one to catch this Michaelmas.