Monday, 27 December 2010

Returning to Titus

The snow we've had here in the English Midlands has played havoc with our Shakespeare classes and so until something else comes up to bring the two groups back into line I'm going to have to find ways of juggling different topics and the preparation that has to go into putting together the material for what have turned out to be two very different sets of students. At the moment that means that I have to revise the input for the thematic session on Titus Andronicus for the more philosophical group, while putting together the data on the same play's performance history for the set with the more literary and theatrical backgrounds.

Diving back into a text like Titus is never a particularly easy thing to do, the more so when the work we've already done has convinced most of us that rather than being so over the top as to be unbelievable the play is actually one that has striking relevance to the world in which we live; a world where violence and revenge are common place to far too many people. So, I've chosen to take the 'easy' way out and started up again by beginning Woza Shakespeare, Greg Doran and Antony Sher's account of the production they did with the Market Theatre in Johannesburg just after South Africa's first free elections.

Many years ago now, I bought Antony Sher's Richard III book, The Year of the King, as a present for a friend and then had to get another copy to give to him, having dipped into the original and discovered that there was no way I was ever going to be able to live without it. This account of the staging of an equally dark play is, if anything, even more gripping, in part because it has insights from two very different people, but also because inevitably there are tremendous personal reverberations for Sher, coming home for the first time to a new regime in South Africa just as Titus is returning to a new regime in Rome. Already it's clear that the book is going to be concerned as much with the damage that has been done to the country and its people as it is with the play, especially in the realm of violence and what personal experience has meant many of the actors concerned accept as normal.

But, that doesn't mean that there aren't insights into the text as well and this morning I found myself arguing fiercely against one of the cuts that they had decided to make in the notoriously difficult first act.

It's generally accepted these days that the first act was most likely written not by Shakespeare but by George Peele. Of course, this is very useful for scholars, who can now breathe a sigh of relief and stop trying to defend the Bard's reputation. However, if you're trying to the stage the play, who actually wrote the damn thing doesn't really matter a hoot, you've still got to find a way of putting all its twists and turns in front of an audience. The best production I've ever seen (Deborah Warner's for the RSC) played the text without a single cut, but Doran and Sher decided not to go down that route and one of the things to go was Titus's killing of his son, Martius. Their reasoning was that this makes Titus appear mad too early  and doesn't give the actor playing him anywhere to go in the later scenes.

The more I think about this the more uneasy I feel. For me it is essential that we are made aware of just what Titus is prepared to do for the state if we are to understand the enormity of what he feels when he realises that the very institution he has fought for has not only turned against him but was never worth defending in the first place. I also think that it is a signal to the audience that in terms that most of us would understand, at least, his mind is already unbalanced. It prepares us for the storm that is to come when he has to face what happens to the rest of his family at the hands (sorry, no pun intended) of the very regime for which he has sacrificed so much.

For me this is the beauty of a discursive book like this. I can argue away with it for hours and then I can put the argument in the hands of the groups I'm working with. I shall be really interested to see what those with psychology backgrounds think about the way in which Titus behaves and whether they think the Sher/Doran cut justified. What I do know is that the discussion will be lively and I shall come away from it with even more food for thought and more material for further debate.


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