Shakespearean “slasher flick” dazzles in keen hands to capture one man’s dissolving chauvinism as he realises his lords are merely human.
Directed by Christopher Ling | Produced by Theatrethreesixty & KL Shakespeare Players
Starring Lim Kien Lee, Sheila Wyatt Beggs, Tika Mu’tamir, Zulhusni Zamir, Nabil Zakaria, Anrie Too, Meng Kheng Tan, Aila Azizul, Shaun Chen & David Perico Lim
While the rest of town gets waist-deep in the Bard’s works, one young theatre company pulls off its first Shakespeare 400 staging of the year. This is Theatrethreesixty and KL Shakespeare Players (KLSP)‘s staging of William Shakespeare‘s goriest stage flick Titus Andronicus as part of the DPAC Arts Festival.
What about Titus Andronicus?
Infamous for its status as Shakespeare’s first commercial success, Titus Andronicus is a look at fictional Rome after its emperor dies and leaves two sons squabbling for the throne. Roman general Titus sets ruination upon his own family and the royals after refusing the throne and handing it over to Saturninus, the deceased emperor’s eldest son. Meanwhile, Tamora, a queen imprisoned and made to beg for her eldest child’s life on the streets, vows to get even with Titus. With assistance from her two sons and her secret lover, Tamora unleashes rape, murder and revenge on the Andronici family once a stroke of good luck lands her a spot in the monarchy.
Theatrethreesixty’s staging takes a markedly visual approach to the tale. Inspired by award-winning 1984 role-playing game Paranoia, this version of Titus Andronicus opens with actors navigating around a bust of the late emperor, picking and choosing among raincoats left on the floor. There are several different designs, and each indicates a class in Roman society — mirroring Paranoia’s iconic “security clearance” system. As Titus Andronicus‘s actors put on their coats, there’s a sense of nervous anticipation: how much blood can viewers expect its two hours of homicide?
None, it soon turns out. Because as observed in Theatresauce‘s Antigone a week prior, there are things far worse than death in the human world.
What did we like?
Titus Andronicus is a striking, thought-provoking staging made all the more accessible due to its gorgeous visuals. Titus’s descent into madness post-intermission in particular is a treat for theatre-goers who like their black boxes filled with pleasant surprises — actors briefly gather and disperse in the performing space during a hallucination sequence simultaneously breathtaking and alarming. But it’s the delightful ending sequence which seals the deal: as Titus plunges his blade into Tamora during a long-awaited retribution, the stage begins to rain blood. It’s an appropriate, dramatic end to the entire saga, forgiving almost all of its missteps. Combined with Shaun Chen‘s strong, original music, Titus Andronicus makes an indelible impression.
General Titus’s understanding of justice and his faith in authority is challenged by growing disillusionment as he loses one child after the other. Portrayed with conviction and an undercurrent of glee, Titus eventually comes to enough of his senses to take advantage of Tamora’s arrogance to deal her one final blow. The story’s many twists and turns are mostly easy to follow despite each actor’s multiple roles and the staging’s blind casting. This is due to its smart utilisation of costume plus Michael Chen‘s fight choreography — prepare to flinch more than once. Credit must go to its fantastic performances from established and promising talents — KLSP’s Lim Kien Lee, Singaporean theatre vet Sheila Wyatt Beggs and young actor Tika Mu’tamir all turn in stellar grades as Titus, Tamora and Saturninus respectively.
What made us go errr…?
Given the generous attention paid to the desecration of Titus’s chaste daughter Lavinia and its effects on the man himself, the play appears to dedicate a disproportionate amount of time to grief and mourning during Act III. Though much of this helps ease acceptance of Titus’s transformation from a Roman stalwart into a rebel, it drags the momentum of the play down to a crawl just prior to intermission.
The only major issue with Titus Andronicus however was its occasional bouts of poor diction, impairing understanding of dialogue. A marked difference was observable between the play’s different creed of actors — some connect to the script, but some have trouble accessing Shakespeare’s language and compensate through carefully-spoken lines. While examples of the latter try their best to deliver convincing performances, they still risk losing audiences who fail to understand them..
Furthermore, for a staging which utilised arena seating, Titus Andronicus played out like it was blocked for a thrust stage. A lot of the action seemed to favour one side of the room.
By focusing on more human themes and the complex relationships within the play, Titus Andronicus was less of the violent gore-fest we expected but it entertained nonetheless. Theatrethreesixty and KLSP’s first collaboration was also more than a feast of the sight or a fun night out — here is proof that Shakespeare, done with a keen eye for detail and desire to reach people, could appeal to a mass Malaysian audience and incite reflection on the nature of leadership, subservience and honour.
Titus Andronicus ran from 30 July – 7 August 2016. Featured image by Joylene Ling and Aaron Wong.