I attended this production with just a little trepidation. The colour photograph in the Sydney Morning Herald with all that “blood” all over the actors and the set looked.... well.... as if I were heading into another..... "Koskyesque" adventure in the theatre. After THE WOMEN OF TROY with the typical production "tricks" of the Kosky oeuvre and my shell shocked experience in the Ride On Company’s production of FAMILY STORIES: BELGRADE maybe my sensibilities were a little depleted and distressed.
However with Shakespeare, Muller, John Bell and Michael Gow leading this enterprise I should have had less fear and more faith. Four practitioners in the theatre with enormous reputations for theatrical intelligence and courage. Trust them. Well, it was well worth the time trusted.
This version of TITUS ANDRONICUS was first produced in 1985. To quote from the program “In Heiner Muller’s version of TITUS ANDRONICUS, the first act is entirely dispensed with, replaced by a running summary of the plot and thumbnail character sketches. Interspersed throughout the next three acts are more chunks of Muller’s poetry, commenting on the action and drawing comparisons with contemporary history. The last act is again abandoned and Muller creates his own version of the savage finale to the play.”..... (the contemporary historical events refer “to events of the 1970s and 1980s (particularly the CIA coup deposing Chilean president Salvador Allende and imposition of military rule under Pinochet.)” This production sets out to test the vision of Muller’s play against today’s reality. The Roman reality, the Elizabethan reality, the German reality or the present contemporary Australian reality, it does not seem to matter much, this production is a powerful experience in the theatre.
The Set (design (Robert Kemp) is a shallow stage surrounded by untreated plywood of some height. Two or three feet out from the plywood surround, at the back, a similarly constructed wall of some strength. It allowed a library of Books to sit on top as if shelved and permitted actors to climb on top of it to crawl, sit and stand.) Whether the walls and the floor were ever pristine, certainly, after almost after two months of touring this production, these walls and floor are now splattered in layers and layers of theatrical blood. Corrugated crimson and “reded” colours of many hues against the wood grain, splat out from a plastic bucket, that as the performance takes speed, is the source of fresh splattering, as the actors thrust, plunge, dip their fingers, hands, arms into it, for flourishing emphasis of unfolding events. When entering the theatre a haze of smoke plays with the lighting state (Lighting Designer, Matt Scott) and the Composer/Sound Designer, Brett Collery; assisted by Tony Brumpton weave a seductively attractive Elizabethan sounding soundtrack, provoking and comforting. (In fact the whole of this score was very marvellous in its intended designs.)
An actor in contemporary board shorts and T-shirt in a gorilla mask carrying a bull-horn and backpack enters the stage. Leans against the wall and stares. The auditorium dims. The company of actors (an all male cast of 9) are all dressed in contemporary street clothes. The most formal of black polo sweater, slacks and shoes is worn by Titus Andronicus (John Bell), the others dress in readily identifiable wear. The Costume Design (again Robert Kemp) very effective. It takes us into a world easily ours, to identify.
Muller believed the text and rhythm “must not be used as an announcement, as an exchange of information, but rather as a melody that moves freely in space.” It is a rhythm, a beat. This well oiled company have been handling this text for almost two months now, and all of them: John Bell, Robert Alexander, Thomas Campbell, Peter Cook, Scott Johnson, Nathan Lovejoy, Steven Rooke, Christopher Sommers and Timothy Walter were in top form. Whether in solo work or in choral work the Muller/Shakespeare language flowed effortlessly and communicatively. It was a very engaging story that they gave us. The fights and the blood letting of the text were highly stylised and executed with such élan that their was no faltering on my part in participating in the play. The actors play numerous roles, sometimes, as in the tradition of THE SHARED EXPERIENCE COMPANY (in the UK), having conversation by themselves as two characters. This experience requires attention and pays off spectacularly for the thrill of the journey.
John Bell as Titus Andronicus is in effortless form. The experience of years of dedication to Shakespeare and to Shakespeare’s language causes Mr Bell to give a peerless performance of both vocal and physical characterisation. In a play of such passion and violence, Mr Bell coolly and technically "rips" through his speeches with rapid fire clarity and intensity. It is thrilling to hear this actor at work. (The deep tones of one of his expressions of laughter, chilling for the unexpected human warmth, after so much impassioned coolness.) It is just as thrilling to watch his physical skill, in gesture and movement that all counts to accuracy; every arm expanse, every finger flick inflected with meaning. Mr Bell delivers detail at speed and he requires you to chase him, to keep up, and so one joins the rhythmical movement of the text, the play. You are seduced into an experience of sometimes a breathless chase. Almost against my critical eye, “my judgemental habit” I found myself inside the action of the play. It was sometimes truly frightening and confronting. Robert Alexander as Marcus Andronicus (the good brother) gives experienced support and all the younger members of this company give creditable performances of skill and technique that will be only enhanced by being able to work with and watch a master at work. I grew to engage with Timothy Walter (Aaron) and Nathan Lovejoy (the brothers Saturninus and Bassianus and the Nurse) and Thomas Campbell (Lavinia) especially.
The Shakespearean text seemed to me to come most vividly to life. The Muller less so. Whether it was my familiarity of the Elizabethan or the lack of complete ownership of the actors to the Muller interpolations or my own unsureness in comprehending the “commentaries” I am not sure. But after a performance of 2 hours and 15 minutes, without intervaI, I was exhilarated and had had a truly great time. I was glad to have attended.
The sheer command of every moment on stage in every element of the production that Michael Gow had brought to bear was so confidently and understatedly explicated that exhaustion of my creative impulses were not possible. Unlike my recent Kosky experience (THE WOMEN OF TROY) where I was in a state of anaesthesia at the end, I was stimulated into a state of needing to talk about it. The audience around me (Saturday Afternoon) was similarly excited we applauded hard and generously in thanks for the generosity of this company of actors and all the creative team. They had an evening performance to give. We could go home and savour.
So this is good theatre. Is it good Muller? I really don’t know. According to some friends it is a little to bourgeois, not nearly angry or protested enough. Is it good Shakespeare? This I can say unequivocally, yes, to. Is it worth the time to deal with? I would definitely say YES. At opposite ends of the theatre as experience from hilarious joy to gaping terror and intelligence The Bell Company is in good form. JUST MACBETH! And now The Muller... TITUS... is worth perusing.
Playing now until 22 November, followed by seasons in Melbourne and Brisbane. Book online or call 02 9250 7777.