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Review: Athens’ National Theatre’s “Titus Andronicus”

Titus Andronicus at Athens’ National Theatre

People unused to Shakespeare sometimes complain that his plays are so hard to understand, he might as well have been writing in a different language. With practice, Shakespeare becomes easier to follow, but the National Theatre of Athens’ production of Titus Andronicus would have stretched even the best-read Shakespearean connoisseur’s comprehension. In spite of some promising moments of clarity and power, this Titus from director Angela Brouskou and translator Giorgos Depastas ended up in as many disconnected pieces as the characters of the play do.

Lavinia (far left) laughs as Tamora (in red) and Saturninus (far right) learn what Titus (in white) has served them for dinner.

If you don’t know Titus Andronicus, here are the very basic facts: Titus is a Roman general with lots of sons and one daughter. He has just conquered the Goths and brought some of them home as party favors, including one that he sacrifices to the gods. He helps elect the young Saturninus as emperor of Rome. Saturninus marries Tamora, the captive queen of the Goths. The two of them, with a little help from Tamora’s bit-on-the-side, Aaron the Moor, proceed to systematically ruin Titus’ life, at which point Titus turns around and systematically ruins theirs right back. Everyone ends up dead, generally in horrible ways: the ones that just get stabbed with swords are the lucky ones.

Yes, this is the play with the chick who gets her hands and tongue cut off after two guys rape her (offstage), after which her father executes her rapists (onstage) and serves them to their mother in a pie (onstage). You might be familiar with Julie Taymor’s cinematic version, Titus.

The cast goes hunting. At left, Bassanius and Lavinia. Standing center, Saturninus and an extra wearing a cat head. With spear, Tamora.

I bring up Taymor’s version because the National Theatre’s Titus often reminded me of the film’s aesthetic. Both featured mishmashs of costume styles, highly stylized violence, and incongruous comedy. And let’s be clear: there’s a way to use broad performances and even comedy in a tragedy in a way that works. Revenge tragedies like Titus lend themselves especially well to that approach because the amount of blood spilt becomes almost farcical. The problem is that if you’re going to take that route, you need to commit to one of two choices: either make the play into a parody (as when the Reduced Shakespeare Company makes Titus into a cooking show), or figure out how to make the audience laugh in horror (as when Taymor presents severed heads like sideshow attractions).

This Titus couldn’t decide whether it was taking itself seriously or not. The production opened with a beautiful and promising tableau: A long table dominated center stage, covered in red flowers, while microphones on stands stood downstage just left and right of center, framing the table. Downstage left stood a TV with tape over the screen, silently playing something appropriately violent and Roman. Andronicus’ family and Bassianus entered from one side dressed in white suits; Saturninus and the Goths entered from the other dressed in black. They laughed and talked with each other, approached the table, and all lifted glasses of red liquid in a toast. Saturninus (Kostas Vasardanis) seemed wry, Tamora (Maria Kechagioglou) looked bitter, Bassianus and Lavinia (Dimitris Agartzidis and Parthenopi Bouzouri) glowed with earnest fervor. Moments later a fight broke out between the brothers Saturninus and Bassianus, and they strode downstage to the microphones to lambast each other and argue their claims for the throne.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long after that for things to start falling apart. Demetrius and Chiron (Petros Malamas and Ilias Kounelas) were mere caricatures of sociopaths, more ridiculous than frightening. Tamora spent the whole play slinking around the stage in pants that looked uncomfortably tight. Aaron (Kostas Falelakis) chewed so much scenery I expected to see toothmarks on the set — almost literally in a few moments. By contrast, Lavinia became mute and passive long before her tongue was cut out. Had I been watching the play in English, though, I would have been appalled at the lack of nuance. (In fairness, though the bizarre overacting generally helped me follow the plot in spite of the language barrier.)

Overall, in spite of the strong beginning, the production simply didn’t hold together. The first act’s few strange moments were easily accepted or ignored in favor of the production’s very effective gore. Over time, though, horror turned into plain weirdness that seemed to aim for laughs without ever getting them. In one particularly baffling scene in the second act, Lucius (Ippokratis Delveroudis), clad in a suit of armor, orated while doing robotic semaphore-like moves for a good ten minutes; people in masks hissed and growled into the microphones the entire time. At least one American audience member I attended the show with gave up on trying to understand and fell asleep.

Left, Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls. Right, Lavinia.

The leather-and-lace punk-military aesthetic of the costumes — Lavinia in particular looked like she’d escaped from a Dresden Dolls album – and the stark lines of the set pieces were effective, but there was a lot of unnecessary stuff onstage. Six taxidermy seagulls sat in the down left corner of the stage, just hanging out giving the whole affair a faintly Wild Dada Ducks air. Nooses descended from the flies as Titus pled for the lives of two of his sons, which would have worked just fine as an indicator of the gallows atmosphere without the plastic mannequin hanging from one of them. Performers donned masks, sometimes to make the double-casting work but just as often for no apparent reason except to make themselves look creepy.

And don’t get me started on the sound design. Underscoring music ran through much of the play, much too loud and repetitively to be anything but annoying. One or two scenes had me wanting to cover my ears so I wouldn’t have to hear Carmina Burana any more.

To be honest, I have trouble deciding whether or not the production was successful. I found the choices made incomprehensible and unjustified, and as a result didn’t enjoy the play. But was I, an American student with limited Greek, the audience Ms. Brouskou wanted to reach? Probably not. What seemed pointless and weird to me may have made perfect sense to the Greek audience members. The fact remains that I found it pointless and weird. I had hoped to be moved by the tragedy of the Roman general gone mad; instead I was bored by the tragedy of uneven production design. As the Greeks say, δεν καταλαβαίνω — I don’t understand.