Smooth Faced Gentlemen have put together a production of Titus Andronicus that rather beautifully captures the double-edged nature of George Peele and William Shakespeare’s play – it is both side-spitting and stomach churning. The all-female cast bring this out in an appropriately physical staging, complete with dumb shows that emphasise how bodies as much as words characterise this cannibalistic tragedy.
The opening stage fight quickly showcases and explains the staging choices taken by the company: against a background of plastic sheeting the leather-jacket clad Goths clash with the Andronicae sons, using paintbrushes soaked in red paint for swords and daggers, as the curiously disembodied, dying Emperor, played by only a puppeted coat, watches on. It’s slickly choreographed but refuses to shy away from brutality, an approach that easily characterises the whole show.
The aesthetic of the show is stark and functional at first, giving way to indulgence as the show progresses. Tamora’s ebony-black, raven-feathered cloak proves a simple but effective key to her character in the opening scenes, like the majority of the costume choices in the show. Against the smart uniformity of the white-shirt-black-trouser ensembles, the gleeful use of paint acts as powerful symbol for the ‘wilderness of tigers’ that lies beneath the civility of Rome.
Henri Merriam’s Titus is a powerful presence and Merriam carries the character through comedy and gravitas with ease. While some productions choose to have their Titus suffer madness, this Titus is in full possession of his wits and all the better for it. Against her, Madeline Gould’s Tamora sometimes pales in comparison. Undoubtedly Vivienne Acheampong’s Aaron steals the show with Acheampong’s delivery of Aaron’s fantastic lines earning well-deserved guffaws. On the other end of the spectrum Leila Sykes’ Lavinia takes the role to new heights, bringing more expression to the largely mute part than one could hope for and by so doing making her tragedy all the more gut-wrenching – a dumb scene depicting her mutilation proves an inventive and incredible addition to the play.
The script has been expertly cut, retaining enough of the darkness while leaving the way open for many moments of unrestrained comedy. Some of the excess has been trimmed from Peele’s opening, preventing Titus from immediately falling into an unsympathetic position, while the greater part of Shakespeare’s language still stands for itself. Occasionally dialogue is rushed along a little too fast or too softly to be heard, or is neglected in favour of the visual message of the production, but that is a minor concern. This Titus is a full-body experience that will have you clutching your stomach, mouth, hair and even (or perhaps especially) your hands before it draws to a close.