Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh: Wed 6 – Sat 9 May 2015
Bloody, nasty and noisy, the Grads’ production of Titus Andronicus at the Assembly Roxy has all of the ingredients of a memorable shocker but it is let down by some confused moments and a surprising politeness.
Shakespeare’s shocking story of revenge, murder, rape and cannibalism in Ancient Rome was out of favour for many years, but in recent times has become increasingly popular and is now one of his most frequently staged plays, with the Fringe usually offering several.
Perhaps this can be ascribed to its themes – war crimes and the brutalising nature of all conflict – being all too familiar to a contemporary audience. This is recognised by the director David Grimes choosing the Gulf War as a setting for this production.
While this undoubtedly provides interesting echoes, it also creates several problems. Simply replacing ‘Rome’ with ‘Iraq’ throughout the text does not only affect the verse, it also throws up a whole set of intrusive questions, not least why the Iraqis are fighting the Goths?
Despite remaining Goths in name, their foes are clearly American, starting with the accents and even going as far as an ill-advised Dubya mask. Other issues, such as the apparent acceptance of same-sex marriage in this Iraq, undermine the otherwise effective switches of gender of some characters.
These niggles mean that it is more difficult than it should be to accept the setting, and it all threatens to get in the way of the storytelling. As a result the first half takes a while to settle down.
This is not helped by the tenor of some of the acting. Whether or not you believe, as many do, that the play was originally intended in part as a parody of a popular genre, it is undeniable that the story can appear so ludicrous as to be literally laughable. This can only be counteracted by heaps of energy and commitment, Here, with the actors performing in the round inches from an often fully lit audience, the performances need to be literally and metaphorically in the spectators’ faces – which is not always the case.
a sinuous, calculating charm
Charles Finnie’s Titus is always interesting, but thoughtful and underplayed is probably not the way to go, as the character’s motives are not really susceptible to rational analysis. Only in the closing scene, when he outdoes Jamie Oliver in the concept of having a truly naked chef, and surrenders to the character’s inherent craziness, does it really come off.
Alan Patterson is on something of a hiding to nothing as the amoral Aaron, and manages to convey much of his hideous relish. Richard Godden’s performance as the emperor Saturnine is always interesting, while Rhiannon King’s villainous Goth Queen Tamora has a suitably sinuous, calculating charm.
Charles Finnie (Titus). Photo: Janie Carter
Sara-Jane McGeachy manages the almost impossible role of the brutalised Lavinia with great skill, being notably strong when the character is incapable of speech. Helen Goldie’s performance as Titus’s sister Marcia, is the most successful of the gender-switched roles, while Iain Goldie, as Titus’s grandson Young Lucius, has a presence and intensity that mark him out as a performer of potential.
Matt Davies and Oliver Trotter, as Tamora’s sons, are believably brutish.
Gregor Haddow, as Titus’s son Lucius, does not always seem completely at ease in the role, but at times has a fire and drive that are missing elsewhere. There are moments of crowd noise and ensemble interaction, particularly early on, that are very well structured but end up being just too timid to be the howling mob they represent.
Normal worries about overacting do not apply to so horrible (and horribly silly) a play as this. If it is not making the audience queasy, they will probably be laughing at it, so better to go in all guns blazing. While Grimes has put a great deal of thought into the staging, it sometimes lacks the courage of its convictions. Some of the nastiness comes off, while some of it falls flat. Interestingly, the old-fashioned bloodsoaked events are much more effective than those involving guns.
This remains a solid and brave effort, with hints of something stronger and darker breaking through occasionally.
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes including one interval
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh EH8 9SU
Wednesday 6 – Saturday 9 May 2015
Evenings 7.30 pm
Tickets from http://egtg.co.uk/tickets
Grads website http://egtg.co.uk/index.html