There’s no shortage of horrible things happening in Shakespeare’s canon. None of them, however come close to the depravity of his early Roman drama Titus Andronicus. The closest equivalent to its bleakness is King Lear. With its unending barrage of rape, torture, cannibalism, filicide, etc. Andronicus makes the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes in the latter play seem tame by comparison.
The story begins with the titular Roman general, Titus (Dennis Newport) winning a victory over the Goths and bringing their queen Tamora (Simina Contras) and her three sons back as captives. Ignoring her pleas for mercy, he casually executes one of them as a sacrifice to the gods and his new Emperor Saturnius. (beautifully played as the classic petulant boy king by Zack Meyer) Saturnius has his eye on Titus’s daughter Lavinia. (Susan Myburgh) When she runs away with her true love, protected by her brothers, Titus’s uncompromising loyalty to the state impels him to murder one of his own sons. (here a daughter played by Brittany Ellis)
Titus’s dual killings in the play’s opening minutes ultimately damn him, as he and his entire family become targets of Tamora’s elaborately fiendish revenge plot.
What truly fascinates is how the two murders are linked. They are both the acts of a loyal soldier. We revere the word “soldier” but rarely contemplate that it means “killer”. Once you’ve killed enough of other people’s children, killing one of your own isn’t that great a leap.
And yet, given the scope and cruelty of Tamora’s revenge, one can’t help but equally pity and damn both sides. If the text did not evoke this feeling, director Emma Peterson’s perfectly suited staging would. She begins the show with an elaborate dance between the two groups, emphasizing the inevitability of the tragedy. One of the songs she plays on the soundtrack, Tom Waits’ “God’s Away on Business” is eminently appropriate to the unspeakably cruel universe created by the show.
I came away from this production wanting a blanket and a teddy bear which is as it should be.