Venue: York Theatre Royal
Director: Yaz Al-Shaater
The Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s production of Titus Andronicus as part of the Take Over Festival originally filled me with not a little apprehension. It was only after I’d signed up to review the play that I looked up the summary. I knew Titus involved a lot of violence, but was unaware that not only did almost every character meet a brutal end, but that there was plenty of mutilation, rape and cannibalism thrown in for good measure. However, the company Smooth Faced Gentlemen are braver women than I and tackled it with innovative aplomb.
The cast spent the time before the play milling about the auditorium, not in characters, but in their “uniform” of black skinny jeans, white shirts and braces. There was no curtain and the stage was set with three screens of white tarpaulin, still slightly rouged from the bloodbath of previous performances. This acted to adumbrate the forthcoming violence.
The play began with a coat held aloft by two of the cast, manipulated to look alive. This was clever , but made me worry that I as in for an evening of unparalleled pretension. My fears were soon assuaged as they swiftly settled into the comfortable style of touring Shakespeare companies, every intonation and action carefully nuanced to appeal to please the crowd. Characters were camped up, thrusts added to every possible innuendo. Even the direction echoed common ideas. The shadow against the canvas was adroitly used, but I’ve seen it a hundred times before in other productions. It was clear they all had done plenty of the comedies and had applied this directly onto Titus. The humour was a pleasant surprise, and they really managed to make the standard revenge plot very humorous.
Things became interesting when they added some rather interesting ideas to the almost bland foundation. The main issue of staging Titus is how do gory do you go? In the question and answer session after, the artistic director said that they didn’t want to be one of those productions where people had to be taken out of the audience into ambulances. They ingeniously circumnavigated this problem by setting three big pots of red paint along the front of the stage, and having paintbrushes as weapons. The brushes became incredibly versatile props, with visual puns being made on it, as Lavinia used a weapon as a pen, and Demetrius and Chiron wielded theirs lewdly when planning her rape. Ashlea Kaye and Stella Taylor as Demetrius and Chiron excelled at the ridiculous masculine banter, which created a parody of itself.
Indeed, the all-female cast acted brilliantly to highlight the absurdity of the revenge plot. The fight scenes were brilliantly choreographed and executed. In the discussion after, when asked about the difficulties of acting as a man, one of the actors (and they call themselves actors not actresses), replied that they simply look at the character of the person they are trying to portray, and build up from that. Another then added that “I don’t want to be political, but gender’s fairly performative”. Whatever your views, this play definitely put this forward as a convincing argument. The direction toyed with the concept of gender, with Aaron cooing and cradling his son, before handing him over to the guards, who similarly cooed, before violently unravelling the sheet he was wrapped in, to reveal its emptiness.
Madeline Gould deserves special mention as the cacodaemonic Tamora, wrapping the vitiated Saturninus (Carly Jukes) around her little finger. The whole cast were strong, though, as I mentioned before, a little predictable, and staid in their versification. However, they were very clear in their ambition to become an all-female touring Shakespeare company, so maybe their unadventurous delivery is purposeful. I feel this is a shame, as this production shows that they are capable of so much more than joining the summer Shakespeare circuit with yet another Twelfth Night.