running until 14 November
Earlier this year, I was impressed by Arrows and Traps’ adaptation of problematic comedy The Taming of the Shrew, which papered over the difficulties in Shakespeare’s gendered comedy with fast-paced fun and comedy. Titus Andronicus is another of the Bard’s trickier plays to stage, and calls for high drama rather than comedy. Having seen this new production at the New Wimbledon Studio last night, it’s easy to see which genre Arrows and Traps do best, as despite some strong performances their Titus lacks the energy and pace of their previous work.
With a blend of the ancient and the modern – cloaks and swords, orange jumpsuits and Apple Macs – the show’s design feels like a rather muddled attempt to make the play relevant today, although there are some effective ideas peppered throughout: notably, the use of Twitter to raise a rebel army.
The main thing that most people know about Titus is its goriness, with the Globe’s recent production notably causing what must be a record number of faintings amongst the audience. It’s not quite the “unrelenting carnival of carnage” they promise, but Arrows and Traps presents the violence well given their smaller budget: while the limbs and heads themselves may look a little plastic, the mutilation of Lavinia (an impressive performance by Remy Moynes) and the throat-cutting of Chiron and Demetrius are particularly powerful. No fainting here, but certainly a reaction from the audience who were unsure whether to laugh or flinch, and went for a mixture of both. Unfortunately the soundscape feels like a clichéd soundtrack to a violent computer game (of the kind young Lucius plays in one scene) and frequently seems off-kilter with the attempted grittiness of the violence.
The most effective performances here come from the bad guys of the tale – if you can separate the factions into moral codes, given all the characters seems up for a murder if they’re in the mood. As Chiron and Demetrius, Will Mytum and Alex Stevens have the best chemistry on stage and, something akin to an evil Jedward, are gleefully demonic and bring the most real threat of danger. After a strong lead performance as Petruchia in The Taming of the Shrew, Elizabeth Appleby makes for a wild and vicious Tamora, while Spencer Lee Osborne is her more playful partner in crime, Aaron.
Yet other performances feel underpowered, particularly those of Samuel Morgan-Grahame (Lucius) and Matthew Ward (the titular Titus). Both have passages of dialogue that drag, and they are unable to inject enough intensity or enough nuance to create a credible characterisation – and if the eponymous hero feels rather unfulfilling, the production as a whole suffers. As Saturninus, Gareth Kearns (reminding me forcibly of Kenneth Branagh’s Gilderoy Lockhart from the Harry Potter series with his floppy blonde locks) starts off strong but also becomes a little lost as the production becomes exhausted. It could do with a few judicious cuts here and there and a bigger impact from some key roles. Titus is an easy play to be silly with given its extreme bloodbath, but most attempts at adding comedic elements fall flat, despite the best efforts of the likeable Annie McKenzie as the Clown.
Overall, Arrows and Traps have created a production that has moments of surprise and shock, and some compelling performances. Yet as an ensemble, this cast feels weaker than in the previous Taming of the Shrew and the show ultimately drags through to its conclusion, lacking the explosive climax of high drama that it needs.
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