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Fights, cadavers, action! Shakespeare’s “bloodiest play” comes to town with a new, inspired twist

STAGING William Shakespeare‘s most murderous revenge play this weekend are Theatrethreesixty and the KL Shakespeare Players. Their latest joint collaboration forms part of this year’s DPAC Arts Festival lineup and looks set to take Shakespeare 400 to a whole new level when it opens this Saturday at Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC).

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play,” responds Theatrethreesixty Artistic Director Christopher Ling when asked about the production’s relevance to local audiences.

Sheila Wyatt Beggs stars in Titus Andronicus.

“Twenty or thirty people die in the course of about two to three hours. It’s full of tit-for-tat, the need to right wrongs and the need to address injustices; it’s the perfect play to stage right now.”

Titus Andronicus caps off a vibrant, political month for local arts — last week saw the premieres of Theatresauce‘s timely Antigone and Galeri Ilham‘s wondrous Era Mahathir exhibition.

In the play, Roman general Titus returns from a successful ten-year battle with the Goths.

With Titus are his prisoners: Tamora, Queen of the Goths, along with her three sons and her secret lover, Aaron. Titus is offered the throne after his brother, Emperor of Rome, passes away. However, he refuses and hands the post to his nephew Saturninus.

After Titus murders Tamora’s eldest son Alarbus, his prisoners of war vow to exact revenge and they go all out. Along the way, hands are chopped, tongues are sliced, someone gets raped, and many more are killed off violently despite their allegiances.

Shakespeare for pop culture enthusiasts

Christopher compares the entire thing to James Wan‘s box office-breaking torture film series Saw.

Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare’s very first major success — this is Shakespeare’s Saw,” he exclaims. “The text has got blood, sex, violence… It was Shakespeare’s first commercial success long before he came out with works like Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

James Wan’s Saw, described in a single frame from the movie.

Wan’s debut film, recognised for its contribution to modern gore cinema, spawned at least six sequels to date for a franchise that has earned more than RM3,000,000,000 around the world. It was also Saw that led Wan to perfecting his craft and ultimately delivering films like The Conjuring and Furious 7.

“It’s not one of those super deep stories; I don’t think you’d stay up all night talking about Titus Andronicus, but it’s full of violence and offstage sex among other things,” Christopher notes amusingly.

Lim Kien Lee stars in Titus Andronicus.

Fight choreographer Michael Chen chimes in, noting its similarities to a wildly-popular HBO television series which has been taking Malaysian audiences by storm.

“This person was supposed to be leader, then this other person became leader, now this person wants to spite another person, then marries this person’s loved one, then there’s betrayal… There’s this constant state of “anyone could kill one another at any time” like in Game of Thrones.”

Torn apart by political turmoil and its rulers preoccupation with vengeance, the Rome depicted in Titus Andronicus isn’t so different from the world of today.

The Titus Andronicus universe may be fictional, but its characters — Tamora and Saturninus for instance — live on, possibly even in your current administration.

Processing a cruel world for the stage

But as explored on The Daily Seni last month, Shakespeare isn’t always easy on local audiences.

“My last involvement in a full-on Shakespeare production was Julius Caesar in 2006,” Michael reminisces. “Back then, I thought to myself the problem with Shakespeare was that it was hard to follow in terms of language and style of speech, although the universal themes never die.”

char3b“When I looked at the script and watched [Julie Taymor‘s 1999 film] Titus, I worried if everyday Malaysians would be able to follow the story.”

Given that their blind casting process would also result in actors playing against gender and physical appearance, Theatrethreesixty and KL Shakespeare Players designed this staging of Titus Andronicus to enhance its accessibility through other means.

Part of the process was drawing inspiration from the “security clearance” system evident in Paranoia — a tabletop game from 1984 which stage manager Tarrant Kwok brought to attention.

In the award-winning RPG, major antagonist The Computer assigns every resident of Alpha Complex to a particular social strata, denoted by a range of colours. Red for example is reserved for those of low ranks, while ultraviolet is a sign of superiority and direct access to The Computer.

How Paranoia comes into the staging of Titus Andronicus is simple: Christopher’s dystopian Rome is a place where identity doesn’t matter as much as your accessories.

Someone’s watching over me

Also bound to satisfy is dramaturg Lim Kien Lee‘s edit of the script, which brings the play down to just a little over two hours in length.

Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999)

Described as a “walking, talking Shakespeare library”, Kien Lee replaced actor Lim Soon Heng in the lead role a mere four weeks before opening night because the latter had to undergo knee surgery.

“I’m really blessed on this production because I have a dramaturg to do all the research work, training and characterisations,” Christopher sighs happily.

“It’s the perfect contribution from the KL Shakespeare Players; now I can concentrate fully on the staging of the play, and tackle one of my biggest challenges which is to try and make the acting hyper-realistic.”

The reason he’s pushing past mere realism? He cannot say just yet, but trust that it will make for a poignant surprise in the black box come Saturday.

With less than a week till opening night, Theatrethreesixty and KL Shakespeare Players are more excited than ever to present their work at this year’s DPAC Arts Festival.

Upon watching a preview of the play performed at DPAC, we too await in anticipation. In fact, we trust that audiences will find this staging of Titus Andronicus to be one of more immediate and enjoyable Shakespearean productions done this year.

“If all goes well,” Christopher muses in conclusion, “hopefully people will walk into the theatre and not have to worry about trying to keep track.”

“Instead, they should be seeing a bunch of children behaving very, very badly.”

Theatrethreesixty and KL Shakespeare Players present Titus Andronicus from 30 July – 7 August 2016 at Damansara Performing Arts Centre. Tickets are priced at RM48 and RM38 (concessions) and can be obtained through DPAC.

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