Shakespeare lean and mean

Titus Andronicus shows how war can distort honour

Cannibalism. Rape. Filicide. The cutting out of tongues and the severing of hands and heads. A body count that tops 15.

With this list of atrocities attached to its plot perhaps it’s no wonder that historically scholars have criticized Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus for its emphasis on shock value.

Despite the criticisms scholars have levied against the play for its sensationalism and its immaturity The Shakespeare Company’s artistic producer Haysam Kadri says Titus Andronicus has a compelling and exciting storyline and strong narrative themes.

In conjunction with Ground Zero Theatre and Hit & Myth Productions The Shakespeare Company opens its season with a production of what is considered Shakespeare’s first tragedy.

“Revenge tragedies were quite popular with Shakespeare’s contemporaries. He was probably trying to one-up them with Titus Andronicus ” speculates Kadri who also directs.

“Scholars have only read the play as opposed to actually seeing it. Those are two very different ways of interpreting plays…. They’ve miscalculated and underestimated it” he says adding that it’s only been over the past century or so that theatres have started programming the play once again.

Kadri attributes part of that to the changing tastes of audiences. “There are movies out there like 300 and television series like Spartacus . People enjoy that genre. It’s more fashionable today to see a portrayal of a society that is more barbaric than we are used to.”

In Titus Andronicus the titular Roman warrior returns home after a 10-year war with the Goths. Accompanying him are his prisoners: Tamora Queen of the Goths; her lover a Moor named Aaron; and her three sons.

Titus proceeds to sacrifice Tamora’s eldest son to avenge the death of his own sons in battle. Consequently Tamora who soon becomes the new Empress of Rome and her two surviving sons pledge revenge on Titus and his family.

And so the cycle of violence murder and evil begins.

“We’re doing an unbelievable version an ambitious version. We’re not shying away from the violence” says Kadri.

Given the number of murders in Titus Andronicus Kadri says many companies who produce the play often rely upon stylized violence because as he explains “violence is expensive to do right.”

“We’re taking it one step further. When there’s blood you’ll see blood. We really want to go all out with this and give our audiences something they don’t normally see onstage.”

However he emphasizes it’s not just for shock value. “I like to think that the violence has merit in the context of the show…. There’s a strong storyline and dramatic action” he says adding the story’s prevalent theme is that of honour.

“When I read this play the word ‘honour’ kept coming up. Characters are using the word when they are doing the antithetical of honourable. Honour gets distorted with countries that go to war.”

Kadri stages The Shakespeare Company’s production in Roman times as Shakespeare did originally because he says that important concept of honour had “more weight more significance to it back in the day.”

Moreover characters with 25 sons and frequent mythological references are all characteristics Kadri says are difficult to impose on a modern setting. “It’s much easier to represent these onstage in a classic context instead of a modern one” he says.

But the play is not without changes. Kadri believes in the “lean-and-mean” version of Shakespeare — he has cut Titus Andronicus to a running time of two hours. “We make Shakespeare accessible for our audiences” he says.

As artistic producer of The Shakespeare Company Kadri says part of his job is to introduce lesser-known Shakespearean works to an audience. “Depending on who you talk to there are 36 – 38 plays at our disposal in Shakespeare’s canon. We get locked into watching the same shows because that’s what our high school curriculum mandates” he says referencing such chestnuts as Macbeth King Lear and Romeo and Juliet .

As such this year’s season is dedicated to some of Shakespeare’s less-oft produced works also including The Winter’s Tale and Twelfth Night .

Titus Andronicus runs until October 5 in Vertigo’s Studio Theatre.