Choosing to produce Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a brave decision. Choosing the play for an amateur group is downright fearless. Hart House has chosen to do the revenge tragedy and the result is not as bad as one may have feared. That is not a knock but a compliment.
Titus Andronicus is a bloodbath of a play with cannibalism, chopping off of hands, mutilation (cutting off a woman’s tongue), rape and the usual murders. The Hart House production presents all of these grisly acts without evoking any laughter. This is from a play that has received comments as follows: a huge joke; justice and cooker go hand in hand; one of the stupidest plays ever written; a heap of rubbish. You get the idea.
David Mackett as Titus serving a special dinner. Photo: Scott Gorman
To be fair the play does have its defenders and there have been some notable productions in the last half century but not that many.
Director Wallis gives a straight and clear production of the play at Hart House. He has a young group of actors, students or recent graduates of acting programs, with a mature David Mackett assuming the title role.
The play has some 30 characters but Wallis does some doubling and manages to cover all parts with 18 actors. I am guessing but it seems that Wallis had many more women than men to choose from and he had to settle for a few of them taking men’s roles. Thus the claimant to the throne Bassanius is played by Megan Miles. I am not sure if she is meant to be a woman or simply a pants role but there she is. Annie MacKay becomes Titus’s sister but keeps her name of Marcus. Son Martius becomes Martia (Melanie Leon). Laura Darby plays Lucius, the Clown and the narrator. Laura Meadows plays Aemilius.
The actors try to speak the rough iambic pentameters, some of the horrible puns and generally tough lines clearly and with some emphasis. Inevitably, some did better than others but paying attention to the words is a highly sensible approach taken by Wallis.
Shawn Lall as Aaron. Photo: Scott Gorman
Titus has a Clown who has about a dozen lines near the end of the play. Wallis decides to make use of her as a sort of chorus piping balloons now and then and pulling a bright red scarf out of her mouth after Lavinia’s (Bailey Green) tongue is cut off by her rapists. It did not evoke any discernible reaction from the audience.
Wallis added a character called Severita (Cassidy Sadler) who may appear in some edition of the play but she is in none that I could check.
The set by Holly Meyer-Dymny is functional. It looks like some beige tree-trunks and with all the gore in front you have little time to pay attention to it. The costumes by Allie Marshall look like “wear whatever you wore this morning” but some of them such as the black shirt and slacks worn by Saturninus (Tristan Claxton) show planning.
Titus Andronicus is produced somewhat more frequently now than it used to be and it has found its share of defenders but it is still pretty hard to take. That brings me back to the gutsy decision by Hart House to produce it and get us through the text pleasantly and take a bow to the young cast and production people for what they have done.
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare continues until March 10, 2018 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ont. www.tickets.harthouse.ca 416 978-8849