If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be working for HBO. We often think of our nation’s greatest poet as a lyricist of genius above all, but two plays staged in Oxford this seventh week show him for what he really was: the noblest hack-writer who ever lived.
Titus Andronicus, the Pulp Fiction of Elizabethan drama, is the earliest and by far the most unrelentingly gruesome of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The young playwright gets his teenage kicks, punches and rapine in a script following a vendetta between Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and the title character, a distinguished Roman general. If a tragedy’s quality were measured by its bodycount, this would be a very straightforward review to write.
As it is, Helen Slaney’s cast make the reviewer’s job very difficult. Bits of their production are awful, bits of it are serviceable, and bits of it magisterial. Let’s get the worst of it out of the way first. Titus Andronicus, the bastion of the Roman empire in her dying days, is cast as a woman. ‘A kind of wronged mother-figure.’ This is utterly gratuitous and deprives Andronicus of his air of wild danger. He is a man fighting the insidious tentacles of a woman’s conspiracy, and this dynamic is central to the play.
Some of the acting, moreover, is really not very good at all. There is a lot of greenwood in this cast, and inexperience leads some of the characters to an overstated and mawkish awkwardness. The Emperor Saturninus in particular sounds like a voice actor in World of Warcraft. Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron are gormless. Other actors do a better job: Tamora herself may not have the air of glacial command you’d expect, but she is convincingly nasty, while Andronicus’ brother Marcus is played with great flair by Naomi Setchell. The laurels, however, go to David Cochrane as Aaron the Moor, who enjoys himself immensely as the Tamora’s cheerfully brutish lover.
The play’s strongest point is its physical theatre. The cast use the space with imagination and verve to create a Rome full of reeking culverts the colour of old blood and sharp-cast shadows. The endless body-parts are supplied by rags soaked in red-dyed water, while Slaney replaces Lavinia’s hacked-off tongue and hands with strips of fabric. There are times when the scenes have an imperious authority that makes the viewer’s breath come shallow. When all things are weighed up, then, this play is more good than bad, and definitely worth an evening of your time.
The Victorians scorned Titus Andronicus because of its unrestrained gore and its ranting incoherence, but it chimes very well with an age that could produce the TV series Rome. Perhaps we are more like the Elizabethans now than we were two hundred years ago. The popularity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the other hand, is apparently indefatigable, and of course it makes a return to Oxford this Trinity.
The cast of The Dream, however, refuse to let Shakespeare do their work for them. Chelsea Walker has ripped out the first and fifth acts and stripped down the complex machinery for the late slot at the BT. The result is brilliant. The cuts raise the play’s intensity while keeping its essence, and Walker’s direction and staging adds a genuine hint of menace to the script.
The real joy, however, is the cast. The majority of the actors are reunited from The Odyssey, and they bring the intimacy and chemistry from that project, with none of its overblown camp. Puck is king in this production, and Ollo Clark is more than up to the task. Richard Williams’ Oberon is elegant and distrait, like an aristocrat sotted with laudanum, and he waltzes around Titania as though this were more ballet than theatre. The husky Ruby Thomas, meanwhile, turns in her best performance of the term as Helena.
This production is genuinely, warmly funny, in spite of the odd bit of slapstick clowning. The cast have tapped a rich vein of Shakespeare, and it is a pleasure to watch it gush forth. The exchange of slapsies between Helena and Hermia – ‘how low am I, thou painted maypole?’ – is, for all its poetry, the stuff of chick-flick, and the characters are straight out of a romantic comedy. This is adroit and squarely in your face: everything, in fact, The Odyssey should have been. Shakespeare is as much a screenwriter as he is a poet, and if you animate the drama beneath the words, you have pure and brilliant modern theatre.