The argument has been made that Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (or The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus, as it was titled in 1594) needlessly sensationalizes violence. Over the course of the play, characters are sacrificed, mutilated, raped, beheaded, buried alive, and baked into pies. Spoiler alert for those who skipped Shakespeare class: nearly everyone dies.
This wasn’t unusual for performances of the time. When Titus was first presented to Elizabethean audiences, revenge plays were all the rage. Titus’ popularity subsided in the 17th century, and the play fell out of favor until closer to our own time in the 20th century. Modern productions are evidence that violence in entertainment thrives once more. Think: Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Dexter … These wildly popular shows are famous for their brutality, and much like Titus, each deals on some level with the consequences of vengeance. Many find depth beneath the bloodshed as the line between good and evil becomes blurred. In this lies the counterargument to Titus‘ intensity: the play presents complex characters faced with difficult decisions and serves as a warning to how acts of revenge can spiral wildly out of control.
Director and self-proclaimed “huge Shakespeare nerd,” John Bryan, is an advocate for the latter. He feels that Titus forces the audience onto an emotional roller coaster ride of tough calls and conflicting scenarios. “Most revenge dramas have a very satisfactory end. Everyone’s dead, but at least the bad guy got his. But in this one, the bad guy gets his, but also even the good guy does some terrible things. You really have to pick and choose who you support,” says Bryan. “The play really shows the destructive nature of vengeance — how it’s a constant cycle, and everyone tries to one up each other until eventually there’s no one left. Vengeance consumes them completely.”
But the violence within the play cannot be ignored, and Bryan’s direction approaches it cautiously with emotional sensitivity and considerate awareness of potential traumas. He’s faced with the dilemma of walking the line between the sensibilities of the audience and a Shakespeare-lover’s wish to stay true to the original script. “On the one hand, I want to charge screaming ahead and not be afraid to address the violence, but on the other hand I do not feel the need to make certain moments unnecessarily graphic,” he says. “I came up with clever solutions with screens and blackouts, so you see what’s happening without actually seeing what’s happening. It’s implied in a very direct way.” In short, Titus is an essential component to the Shakespeare canon but may not be for everyone.
Bryan also had to get creative with staging. The play was initially intended for Flowertown’s larger main stage, but the need for renovations forced the play to the smaller black box space. Bryan and his team had to rethink their entire presentation. Titus traditionally takes place on a grand scale with “big feelings, big speeches, and big fights,” he says. How would they convey such enormity within a newly limited space (with plenty of room to spare for the audience)?
The solution became to arrange the production atop an alley stage (also known as a traverse or a corridor stage) in which the audience is divided in two, each side facing the other and with the stage itself running between them. “I had to be very mindful of sightlines because if you have someone standing in the middle of the space speaking to someone way up stage, you’re going to be blocking three or four rows. So I had to get creative, but I think it’s changed the play for the better,” he says.
This arrangement repositions the action much closer to the audience and, Bryan hopes, helps to heighten the audience’s empathy for the characters, instilling in viewers “a more personal understanding of why these characters are the way they are and what their motives are.”
Titus Andronicus is heavy, no doubt, but it’s a glimpse into the early playwright’s ability to stir the soul with raw humanity. Those who can see past the violence will find Shakespeare’s enormous capacity for empathy toward even the most conflicting of characters and will find Titus to be a compelling glimpse into the mind of a genius in the dawn of his career.