TITUS ANDRONICUS: Hiraeth Artistic Productions
TITUS ANDRONICUS: EDINBURGH FRINGE
- Director: Zoé Ford
- Assistant Director: Lily Alyss
- Designer: Nadia Malik
Hiraeth Artistic Productions have brought their version of Titus Andronicus to Edinburgh after a run at the Arcola in London that produced almost universal acclaim.
The treatment swaps late Roman Empire for the 1980s with the majority of the characters being skinheads. The Goths of Shakespeare’s original are … Goths as in the post-punk sense who have emigrated from Ireland. Titus’s family and followers are crazed revival skinheads shown plotting their turf wars while dancing to electropop and swilling Special Brew.
I saw nothing in this radical reworking of eleventh-century Rome to 1980s Britain by director Zoé Ford that couldn't be justified through a close reading of text and stage directions. The anachronisms are all carefully judged and serve to make the plot as written accessible. In an Edinburgh Fringe otherwise bereft of intelligent use of Shakespeare, the brilliance of this production proved a beacon.
There were two productions of the play at last year’s Fringe and it’s gratifying that young directors are finding relevance in the piece despite its dismal plot focus. Their approaches seem in no way fettered by the phenomenal success of the Julie Taymor film version. Hiraeth communicate the topical relevance of their material from the off as audience members are confronted by skinheads distributing xenophobic flyers before we have even entered the venue.
Occasionally fazed by the violence (notably the rape and mutilation of Lavinia) and with the characters’ racist tattoos being flourished inches from my face, I sat entranced in a black box set that depicts a decrepit north London council flat. Dr. Martens boots and flick knives became as intimidating as the armour of a Roman centurion.
What I particularly like about Ford’s approach is that while this is indeed the dreaded ‘concept’ production, she shows rigour in continuing to probe at her shift of time and place in order to illustrate how late twentieth-century National Front extremism has parallels with the period of Seneca.
Within a few scenes, judicious use of updated cultural references mean the plot and its new setting begin to fuse. The conceit works: it becomes logical that Emperor Saturninus should be a drug lord while the Moorish elements in the original are reflected in the culture of Jamaican Yardies from our own day. The synthesised music of Human League and Madness becomes an apt backdrop for the endless cycle of violence while Martyn August’s light touch with choreography echoes the general discipline of the production. He hints subtly at yet more cruelties off stage. Not once do Hiraeth make an obvious or lazy choice and designer Nadia Malik avoids any gratuitous blood-letting amid a spare set in which mesh fencing symbolises urban decay and the Cross of St George predominates.
This could have been a train wreck of a production with materials warped out of their natural guise and a bovver-booting of the plot. The company’s Edinburgh debut is in fact a triumph that draws on the elasticity of Shakespeare's verse (it survives the transition intact with just the odd self-aware anachronistic profanity) and the magnetism of David Vaughn Knight as the title character. Diction proves clear, naturalistic, un-shouty and unmannered despite adoption of regional accents. The cast have worked hard at their verse-speaking since the London run. I left exhausted and exhilarated.