In response to the closure of theatres across Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of Sydney-based actors have been performing staged readings of Shakespeare’s plays for online streaming every week of the nation-wide lockdown. For this week (approximately week 19 since the pandemic broke in Australia), the Streamed Shakespeare team bring Titus Andronicus to a screen near you.
As the audience impatiently awaited the beginning of the performance, Streamed Shakespeare baited the audience with “Hope all your stomachs are ready for Shakespeare’s goriest, bloodiest and most violent play!” The violence of Titus Andronicus is its defining characteristic and the one most people associate with it. With a plot full of rape, mutilation, infanticide, cannibalism, and a total of 14 deaths, it’s understandable why it remains the least often performed Shakespeare tragedy but with the mediating screens of online streaming, Streamed Shakespeare’s staged reading allows more investment in the revenge plots and conspiracy intrigue.
The story follows a feud between Titus (Geoff Sirmai), a Roman nobleman, and Tamora (Barbara Hastings), Queen of the Goths and wife of Roman Emperor Saturninus (Samantha Lambert). Overlapping revenge plots, affairs, betrayals, and disguises create confusion in a customary Shakespearian way as Titus and Tamora use their children as pawns in their twisted plans.
Director Haki Pepo Olu Crisden reimagines the brutal Gothic atmosphere of the play as a bit camp with a lascivious Tamora and her sidekick sons Chiron (Jim Southwell) and Demetrius (Tom Southwell) looking like deranged clowns with eyeliner and leering grins. Against the more straight characters of Lavinia (Lisa Hanssens) and Aaron (Joshua Karras), the camp visual cues of the Goths added a level of unexpected silliness to the torture these characters inflicted on others. It feels like just dessert, then, when the two sneering sons are baked into a pie by the deteriorating Titus. At the same time, designer Alice Chu used virtual backgrounds for each actor’s video stream to illustrate the changing locations for an inventive techy-kitsch aesthetic complete with curtains of blood as many met their violent ends on the tip of a rapier.
While the script is widely regarded to be Shakespeare’s least poetic or lyrically accomplished, Marcus (Fulisia Asalemo Dominic Tofete), Titus’s younger brother and figurehead of the Andronicus family, provided some well-delivered metred summaries of the play’s events and measured advice as the feud became bloodier and bloodier.
Translated to a streamed stage, Shakespeare’s bloodiest play certainly loses most of its gruesomeness but, whether that’s to your tastes or not, it’s pleasant to spend an afternoon amongst the political scheming of Shakespeare’s characters, especially for those so desperately craving live theatre again.
Titus Andronicus was streamed online by Streamed Shakespeare on July 19th and will be available for later viewing throughout the week. For more information and to make a donation, please visit their website.
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