Year of Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

 

Titus Andronicus, Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio, Dir. Tang Shu-wing, 4 May 2012 at The Globe, London

By Adele Lee, University of Greenwich

Murder. Rape. Mutilation. Cannibalism. Titus Andronicus is the most violent and arguably absurd play attributed to Shakespeare, and critically-acclaimed Hong Kong director, Tang Shu-wing, seems to have successfully managed to convey both aspects – the horrific and the comic – judging from the audience’s mixed reaction. The problem with this otherwise powerful and thought-provoking production is that it was primarily the Cantonese-speaking audience members who picked up on the comedic moments or, perhaps, topical allusions, of which non-natives were unaware (even the harrowing rape of Lavinia was met, quite disconcertingly, with laughter, as was the cannibalism scene). Indeed, one suspects there was some significant political commentary embedded in this performance on which English-speaking spectators missed out (at the start of Tang’s 2009 version of the same play – Titus Andronicus 2.0 – the sound of current local and international news filled the auditorium).

The language barrier, therefore, was more apparent and insurmountable at this performance than at others I’ve had the pleasure of attending at this festival so far. Indeed, it was interesting that there wasn’t a single smattering of English in Tang Shu-wing’s  Theatre Studio’s stage adaptation, unlike most other performances – not that this is a necessary or indeed always desirable quality. But, given the Hong Kong Chinese propensity to ‘code-switch’, this seems particularly unusual. Given, too, the claim on the Globe’s website that ‘the hybrid culture of Hong Kong informs this production’, it appears strange and deliberate to omit overtly British influence on the company/former colony.

Perhaps this is indicative of Tang’s determination not to conform to (Western) expectations in general. For instance, there is nothing obviously ‘Oriental’ or exotic about this performance, apart from the music – which used traditional percussion and bowed strings – and Tang avoids providing a spectacle or anything resembling a gore-fest, opting instead for a decidedly understated and minimalistic production (it is not surprising that he has previously directed three Brecht plays). In fact, the bare stage, lack of mise-en-scène, and plain costumes, contributed a little to the diminishing of a big, complex character like Titus (Andy Ng Wai-shek): how much stature and authority can one really exert whilst dressed in grey?

The hybrid nature of the production manifests itself in more subtle and interesting ways than through the language. The acting style, in particular, oscillated between Western realism and Eastern stylisation, and the company were clearly inspired by a number of theatrical conventions, old and new, European and Asian. The performance started with twelve members of the cast seated in a row at the front of the stage, before donning their costumes and stepping into their roles. In doing so, they mimicked the technique of ancient Chinese storytellers, but also suggested that as characters they had been militarised, and trained to think in line with one another. This fed nicely into the original’ play’s central concern with the relationship between the state and the individual (and the stripping of the latter’s identity in the service of the former). One is also tempted/encouraged to interpret this as a critique of Communist China, for Hong Kong Chinese resistance to being absorbed by the mainland, during and ever since the 1997 ‘handover’, is well-documented. And, incidentally, this innovative theatre troupe, first called ‘No Man’s Land’ in reflection of the liminal status of Hong Kong, were formed in the same year as the transition.  It is, therefore, almost to be expected that their production would be a particularly political one, and one that used Shakespeare to comment on the situation in contemporary Hong Kong.

Yet while the company invited a political interpretation (the wearing of the so-called ‘Mao suits’ is another example), it simultaneously gave the impression of shying away from issues pertaining to race – something I’ve found rather typical of Chinese Shakespeares. The ‘Moor’, Aaron, played by Chu Pak-hong, was not obviously racially ‘Other’: his ‘blackness’ was internal, and he was demarcated as the outsider by a pierced ear, ponytail, and tattoos on his arms and on both sides of his face (there taking the form of massive sideburns), all of which gave him the appearance of a kind of wolf-man.  His performance was outstanding, and the sexual chemistry between him and Tamora (Ivy Pang Ngan-ling) sizzled. Chu Pak-hong delivered scriptwriter Rupert Chan’s version of the (in)famous ‘I have done a thousand dreadful things’ speech (Act 5, Scene 1) with delicious glee, and stood majestically atop reform ladders, in keeping with Shakespeare’s stage directions. This demonstrated one of a few notable attempts to stay faithful to Elizabethan theatre conventions; another was the playing of the nurse, whom Aaron stabs, in drag. Although there is a long-standing association with transvestism in East Asian theatre, its use here seemed like a self-reflexive allusion to the group’s current venue. The effect was, unfortunately, to produce laughter at a rather inappropriate moment in the play which highlighted the production’s wider problem with tone – although this is an accusation which has long been levelled at the original.

Overall, this was an interesting and certainly memorable production: there were some sterling performances and the cast and director did a praiseworthy job of communicating, in a restrained, yet (for the most part) hard-hitting, manner, the misery of the human condition and the alarming penchant for violence and cruelty mankind can and has exhibited.

 

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!

 

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

Want to know what other audience members thought about this production? Listen below to interviews with some of them:

Listen below to an interview with the director and one of the actors, recorded by the Globe Education Department:

Here’s what others are saying about this performance:

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Author:Adele Lee

Adele Lee is lecturer in English Literature at the University of Greenwich, after receiving a PhD from Queen’s University, Belfast, in 2009. She is the author of numerous articles on Shakespeare, Postmodern Appropriation, and Renaissance travel writing, and has published works in Shakespeare Bulletin, Early Modern Literary Studies and Quidditas, among others. She is currently completing a book for Fairleigh Dickinson University Press entitled The English Renaissance and the Far East: Cross-Cultural Encounters.
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  • I think the issue of tone in Titus is a difficult one. On the one hand it’s a harrowing, horrific story, on the other it’s so over the top as to verge into black comedy – the direction for Lavinia to take Titus’s severed hand offstage in her mouth, for instance. The Shakespeare Institute Players recently performed Shakespeare’s script and there were a lot of laughs throughout, even in the grisliest scenes – perhaps to relieve the tension? I wonder if this somehow also relates to the success of visually rich and non-naturalistic Tituses, like Ninagawa and Taymor’s. Shu-wing seemed to go down this route with the red gloves although his style was more pared back and spartan, as you suggest. I thought having the production clad in black — white — and then lots of grey worked well with the ambivalent moral landscape of the play, but I wasn’t entirely sure about why Saturninus and Bassianus were in white… perhaps it was a practical rather than symbolic decision, meant to help the audience keep track of who’s on what side.

  • Jude Evans

    I’ll be seeing The Two Gentlemen of Verona tomorrow and then another six after that, finishing with Henry VIII which I’m very excited about!

  •  Hi Jude,

    You make some great points.  We totally agree about the play’s “awkward balance of ‘the horrific and the comic’.”  Are you seeing any other performances?

    SBT

  • Jude Evans

    After watching the production and reading this review two things have stood out to me. Firstly, the militarised nature of the opening, and, secondly, the choice of colour (or lack of).

    The opening, with all the cast in a line and moving in a somewhat rigid manner, appeared to prepare for the subsequent unravelling of Titus and his state. It seemed particularly effective that the disintegration of both Rome and Titus’ being, and that of others, should be chanelled through movement and expression as opposed to any bold set or costume. The movement, sounds and facial expressions of Lavinia – always twisted and contorted – appeared to be more agonising (and occasionally amusing) to watch than any exaggerated visual sign of blood and gore.

    The detail seemed to be in emotions and the body, which, for me, went some way to suggest an explanation for the choice of colours: black, white and grey. With such colours the production could focus on the emotional and physical disintegration of the characters, rather than being too caught up or distracted by the meaning of certain costumes. But, perhaps, as a Facebook discussion amongst students has already questioned, and this review (why white for Saturninus and Bassianus? Why grey for Titus?), there is a subtle significance in the choice of costume and colour. Personally, I found the use of such colours primarily a means for allowing a kind of body and emotion-scape to be drawn out and focused on.

    Along other lines, I agree very much with the review’s praise for Aaron and the internalisation of ‘blackness’. And I also thought the production highlighted the play’s awkward balance of ‘the horrific and the comic’ very effectively, especially in the brothers’ scheming where they appeared animalistic and beastly whilst also humouring the audience through their expressions and exaggerated movement.

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