Unless the Gods Delight in Tragedies
I made my first of two annual trips to the Hawrelak Park amphitheatre on Tuesday for Edmonton’s FreeWill River City Shakespeare festival. We thought we were going to catch the comedy, Comedy of Errors, but it turns out we had our days switched and Titus Andronicus was showing instead.
Titus Andronicus is one of only six or seven Shakespeare plays I’ve never read, and the first time I’d seen Shakespeare performed without having read the source material, which was kind of a neat experience. Pair that with excellent staging and acting, and it was one heck of a night. Quite possibly the best version of a Shakespearean play I’ve seen done.
The staging and blocking was really well done. Often Shakespeare can feel drawn-out because directors don’t know what to do with all that talking, and an audience is left with nothing interesting to watch while they struggle following iambic pentametre. Other times there’s so much disconnected blocking — movement for movement’s sake — that it’s distracting.
The action seemed very purposeful in this play. Well-directed and thought-out, driven by character motivation and — most importantly — what was being said. It was an extraordinarily physical show, yet almost nothing felt tacked-on or extraneous. The physical flowed with the vocal performance, and actually assisted in conveying the meaning of the complicated Shakespearean speech-patterns in many places. The fight scenes were dynamic and engaging (best knife fight I’ve ever seen on stage, albeit too short), and the actors who portrayed Demetrius and Chiron created the creepiest pair of villans I’ve seen on the stage for some time.
In a genre of theatre that generally involves more off-screen than on-screen deaths, this show embraced and pushed the most graphic elements of the plot, whether they were sexual or violent, and tied with the post-modern setting and costuming, created a marvelously creepy and sinister world. The director and the cast didn’t ever let the audience off easy. Lavinia’s slow and anguished slide down the main stair after her assault was extended, brutal, and uncomfortable to watch on a starkly lit stage, and her tongueless cries were agonizing to listen to. Props to the actress who played Lavinia for committing so completely to the role and the moments that she did, which carried her character arc from innocent to assault to vengeance to death seamlessly and convincingly. It was chilling to watch her stare one-by-one into the faces of Chiron and Demetrius while her father sliced their throats and the blood drained into the bowl she was holding beneath them. Like, whoa. Props also for committing to the position she landed in for what must have been an agonizing fifteen minutes after her character was killed. Not easy.
This show gets a high recommendation from me. Hopefully Comedy of Errors is similarly well-done. I’ll find out when I see it next week!