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Review: Titus Andronicus at Sydney Opera House

By Laura Heuston

Upon exiting Bell Shakespeare’s latest production my companion and I immediately agreed that to put our reactions into words would be, in a word, impossible. Which is unlucky for me as a reviewer, but also amazing, given the quality of this play. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and upon emerging one might be forgiven for thinking they had just awoken from witch’s curse. And I know it had to be a Shakespearian witch’s doing, as this was a 100 minute journey through a revenge bound hellscape, with all the gore, faeces, and seduction that one would expect from women that are awe-inspiring both for their power and horror. With no intermission.

Reframing this murderous play to centre women and their bodies enabled director Adena Jacobs to explore the visceral and sinew-strewn nature of violent revenge. Most of the roles were played by women, and many spent their time essentially naked. Pregnancy and the brutality of childbirth is thus entangled within the identities of many of the characters- Tamora (Melita Jurisic), Aaron (Tariro Mavondo) and the clown (Catherine Van-Davies) especially- reminding us that there will always be more children to be made to suffer, and to punish each other for their parent’s crimes. Visually, a prominent addition to these naked bodies is wounds and infections, and a variety of bodily excretions that are applied by those responsible for the corruption. While Aaron streaks Titus’ hand with blood before it is cut off, mostly they apply these to themselves- all are culpable in this nightmare world and all are punished. It is through this conceptual throughline of marking themselves that a few minor changes to the script are insinuated, the one that I particularly loved being the suggestion that Lavina (Jayna Patel) gets to cut the throats of her rapists and mutilators. She essentially bathes in their blood, and although she of course does not survive, the cyclical nature of violence and revenge that sits at the heart of this play is poignantly demonstrated by the silent, innocent victim’s relishment of death. Not that I blame her, really.

Jane Montgomery Griffiths is earth shattering at the titular character, not only for the raw emotion of her performance, but the subtle communication that she sees this hell for what it is. Initially, she is presented as part of this terrible place, and as accustomed and accepting of it as the demonic Aaron- Mavondo being utterly terrifying, both in her psychopathy and unrelenting seductiveness. However Titus’ continued suffering at the hands of Tamora enables Griffiths to communicate his rebirth into self-awareness, and his choice to lean into the horror and outdo them all. At no point in this production did I question if Titus was insane- he was not, but he saw the nightmare world for what it was, and upon realising there was no escape, elected to become the cruelest monster. After all, “Rome is but a wilderness of tigers.” It was perhaps a worse fate than losing his mind, and Griffiths manages to convey this character’s personal tragedy with breathtaking honesty and sympathy.

The decision to cast the amorous Tamora as an older woman was stroke of genius on Jacobs’ part, as Melita Jurisic took us well into the realm of the supernatural with her Macbethian witch like influence and ability to seduce all those around her. The power she held was one of a mother who loved as passionately as she insights atrocities efficiently. And boy, does she get some absolutely shocking things done. Her performance as Revenge is utterly hypnotic- I think I may have held my breath for it’s duration, but it is of course her brazenness in this endeavor that is her undoing. She relied on Titus being mad, and unlucky for her, he wasn’t that kind of mad.

There is so much to say about this production that I simply won’t be able to fit here so I’ll try to briefly cover the rest that absolutely must be mentioned:

A huge congratulations must go to Max Lyandvert, Hannah Lobelson and Verity Hampson for the sound, costumes and lighting. Stunning work.

To the cast members that I haven’t been able to mention here, my sincere apologies. I wanted to write a paragraph on everyone but I only have 800 words. 

I won’t even try to comment on that clown dance. But I do think that I might see it again in my nightmares. So that’s something to look forward to. 

If you have a weak stomach, I recommend preparing yourself before you see this show. Still go of course, but have some ginger on hand. While I can’t promise that anyone will necessarily “enjoy” this production, I swear you’ll be blown away by it. An absolute triumph for Bell Shakespeare, and women in theatre. 

Image Credit: Brett Boardman

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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