The Cambridge Theatre Collective offer up a largely genderbent production of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, set in a high school. Despite some positives, the show makes puzzling decisions and could do more to maximise the emotional potential of the text.
There is potential in this production, despite the missteps.
The gore is never gratuitous (a real danger when staging this particular play) but an unintentionally funny moment occurs when the severed heads of Titus’ sons are borne onstage in Sainsbury’s bags. Marking out the warring factions with different school ties was a clever move but when Tamora and her sons appear to Titus dressed as Revenge, Murder, and Rape, Demetrius and Chiron (Matt Bradley and Jerome Burelbach) wear Minion onesies in what appears to be an out of place decision to play that one scene for laughs. The script itself is skilfully cut to an hour and fifteen minutes, but utilising more than one track for musical transitions would have prevented them from becoming repetitive. And the symbolism of red lighting washes could easily have been substituted for something more subtle.
Bradley and Burelbach have convincing brotherly rivalry and do a decent job portraying the slimy siblings as both grandstanding and craven. But the trick to making Titus Andronicus emotionally powerful is creating sympathy for the characters who perform even the most egregiously horrible deeds: that way we can see some of ourselves in those characters and take the warning about revenge to heart. Both Lola Olufemi as Aaron and Nisha Emich as Tamora had the despicable sides of their characters down pat, but I would have liked to see them find something to love in their roles. Olufemi could seek to show internal justification for Aaron’s villainy before the motivating presence of the baby is introduced; Emich could display grief over Tamora’s executed son as a constant spur to her machinations. Kay Dent as the eponymous general reaches for frustration rather than deep grief in the famous ‘stones’ monologue; a quieter, more broken Titus might have elicited more sympathy as well as established a contrast from the similar frustration expressed in the opening scene. Seth Kruger delivers a strong performance as Saturninus, being the sole cast member to fully buy into the high school setting with an appropriately petulant characterisation. Delivery from all the cast could be strengthened with pre-show vocal warm ups for diction and checking the proper pronunciation of the words “wont,” “plebeians,” “Zounds,” and “execrable.”
There is potential in this production, despite the missteps. But the play is bookended by audio from news footage of school shootings, saying, “The looming question is ‘Why?’” - a question that it never quite manages to answer.