Friday, 16 June 2006

Titus Andronicus - The Ninagawa Company 2006

Titus Andronicus
The Ninagawa Company at the RSC, Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK.

The first thing that struck me about this production was how tightly and precisely it was directed. The performance employed a highly specific distribution of characters into spaces across the stage. The action within each scene was almost dance-like in quality, and the movement of the actors effortlessly flowing. This production was composed with the eye of an artist or photographer, with each tableau beautiful enough to be used as a still photo, and the resulting performance reminiscent of a choreographed routine. Particularly striking were the juxtapositions created: the joy of Titus greeting his sons, against Tamora huddled together with Chiron and Demetrius, weeping over the death of Alarbus; Tamora standing motionless amidst a fight. With Titus Andronicus, acclaimed director Yukio Ninagawa has once again created a sensational piece of theatre.

The stage setting for the performance is kept extremely simple: completely white walls, brightly lit; concealed doors; and a raised, windowed gallery. Throughout most of the performance the stage is dominated by a huge, white, Capitoline Wolf on a plinth. During the hunt scene, this is replaced by a forest of large stylised plants, also bright white. In fact, all of the scenery is white, as are most of the costumes, and this is probably as much for stylistic as symbolic reasons: white is striking and bold, and makes a stark contrast to the red blood being shed, as well as being the colour of death in Japanese culture. The costuming itself was heavily influenced by traditional Japanese styling, with elements of Roman, Moorish, Manga and Punk thrown into the mix. Aaron wore red throughout, and Chiron and Demetrius had blue and green included in their costumes. At the end, the Goths and Lucius are in black costume.

There is no ‘real’ gore in this production: the blood, as everything else here, is stylised. Bunches of red thread are cleverly concealed until a wound is created, and then swiftly and invisibly drawn out. The swaying of the threads creates a sense of blood flowing from a wound, and works far better in this piece than would actual stage blood. This is used to greatest effect when Lavinia stumbles onstage with her raw stumps, blood flowing from her mouth and wrists. To add to the horror of this scene, Chiron and Demetrius also appear onstage, laughing, and naked except for Lavinia’s blood covering their groins. The same horror is apparent at the start of the play, when the head and hand of Tamora’s eldest son are thrown back to her to grieve over. Both head and hand are merely clear plastic, again with red thread falling from them, but somehow this is appalling. Here indeed is proof that a stylised approach to stage effects does work with a modern audience, and that what is left to the imagination can be far more powerful than what is starkly revealed.

As one would expect from a Ninagawa production, the acting here is first rate. Kotaro Yoshida as Titus is indeed a ‘fierce Andronicus’: noble, powerful, a man to be feared. He is also a Titus with a heart, grieving over the wrongs done to his kin, protectively clutching to him what is left of his family, in a tableau reminiscent of Tamora and her sons at the start of the play. Playing against him, Rei Asami as Tamora is regal and beautiful, cold and commanding. Throughout, both characters display purpose, passion and pain, and are more than a match for one another. A new light is thrown on the relationship between Tamora and Aaron (Shun Oguri): here we have a very young Aaron, pretty and punky, sneaking around and stirring up trouble; almost another son for Tamora to manipulate. It is clear that Tamora is in command of her sons and Aaron, as well as Saturninus. Lavinia (Hitomi Manaka) is a good daughter driven mad by her violation: staggering onstage with knees clutched together, wild haired and filthy. When Chiron (Yutaka Suzuki) and Demetrius (Hiroki Okawa) are strung up for their crimes, she shrieks, and beats at them with her stumps, before collapsing to the ground in despair. Marcus Andronicus (Haruhiko Jo) is a quiet and caring man, horrified by the bloody goings-on.

There is a constant uneasiness on the stage in this production, a tension always ready to break into chaos, and in this way the play manages to avoid degenerating into farce, as can so easily happen with productions of Titus. There are so many tears throughout this play that it is exhausting to watch, but it stays true to the mood of the text, and plays as dire tragedy rather than black comedy. The pacing at the end is excellent, with the tension mounting as Titus serves up the meal. Marcus and Lucius sit at table, pale and serious, not touching the food on their plates. Lavinia enters in a veil and wedding dress. All are shocked by Lavinia’s murder, and Tamora is horrified and choking at finding out what is in the pies. At this point the whole scene falls into chaos, with tables flung about, blood suddenly leaking from the pies, and death all around. Once all is done, only the body of Tamora is left on the stage, and the final scene is of Young Lucius, cradling the Moor baby, falling to his knees and howling. 

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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