William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus by Het Nationale Toneel, The Hague, The Netherlands [seen at Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam, 15 May 1997]. PREMIERE 12 April 1997 at Stadstheater Zoetermeer.
Johan Doesburg is developing a taste for Shakespeare's more difficult plays. After Troilus and Cressida (1994) and All's Well that Ends Well (1995), he has now turned his attention to Titus Andronicus. Doesburg's Troilus and All's Well were most challenging, entertaining, and shrewd productions; Titus Andronicus cannot lay claim to any such superlatives.
This Titus Andronicus was performed in a large, dark, and empty box with side walls made of metal gauze. For the group scenes high metal flights of stairs were rolled in from the wings. This stark set was effective at suggesting imperial Rome. Also, during the expository scene of the play, the set served to mark off clearly the various factions and families, and to convey the shifting allegiances between them — from the political rivalry between Bassianus and Saturninus to the competition between Chiron and Demetrius over who was to enjoy Lavinia. The abstract set, however, did not on all occasions support the play. The sense of this vast site as a public space made it difficult to appreciate the scenes of grief shared by Titus and Lavinia as instances of a family tragedy. But then the chilly, metallic space was part of an overall design to stylize both the horror and the grief in Titus Andronicus.
As part of this strategy, no blood was seen to flow in this bloody play, despite the on-stage amputation of hands, or Titus's successful attempt to string up Tamora's sons on meat hooks. Certainly, the severed heads of Titus's sons were made to bounce on the boards, but the thuds were consciously upstaged by Titus himself (compellingly played by Rik van Uffelen) commanding respect at the footlights. In trying to avoid the obvious pitfall of the comically escapist grand guignol, and eschewing the alternative option of driving the audience sick with revulsion — as was the case with the Stratford Titus at the Swan Theatre several years ago — Johan Doesburg erred on the safe side, trying to turn acts of butchery into ritual, massacre into ceremony.
In this production, Doesburg devoted special attention to the play as a language construct, an exercise in rhetoric. Here, he found ample support in the translation by Frank Albers. Like Albers's Dutch (or should one say Flemish, given his origins?) rendering of All's Well for the 1995 production, his Titus text is faithful and genuine, remarkably lucid, and on occasion also attractively contemporaneous. With the Albers version of Titus, Doesburg had a text fit to be spoken and heard. And in his attempt to ritualize the physical horror, he produced a blend of Roman oratory and the rhetoricians' theatre that flourished in the Low Countries during the Renaissance. In a sense, it was highly appropriate for a modern production to draw on two classical traditions of elocution that intersect in Titus Andronicus. And, with the excellent voice work that made the Dutch blank verse sound stunningly flexible, the director achieved more than just a few attractive moments in this production. He did so by divorcing the words from the action, concentrating on emotion and delivery, and minimizing the interaction between the speaker and the addressee. Doesburg's approach was very convincing at times. A case in point was the moment when Titus's brother Marcus delivered his lines of grief over the atrocities that Lavinia had suffered, without even seeing the victim who was at that moment moving up behind him, in full view of the audience. Reviewing the play for De Groene Amsterdammer, Loek Zonneveld termed it "one of the most beautiful scenes in this production." On the page, the scenes from Shakespeare's cabinet of horrors seem impossible to play but here in Doesburg's production, "on stage they derive their energy from the simple fact that the messengers of doom turn their backs on that same doom as they inform us about it." Personally I felt that waiving the laws of verisimilitude in an operatic manner, the production here placed the emphasis on Marcus and his grief, robbing the truly victimized Lavinia, tongueless and without hands, of more than her due. The focus continued to be on the language and the speaker, and never turned to the dumb object of the purported grief itself.
It was part of Doesburg's larger strategy to dissociate words and deeds, and to deflect the audience from the representation of outrage to the art of rhetoric. Also during the final scene, horror and grief were ritualized by means of rhetoric, particularly following the massacre at the banquet with its varied and colourful display of food recalling a seventeenth-century Dutch still-life. One cannot help wondering if, given the intimacy suggested by the verse, there was really a need to maintain such a physical distance between the corpse of Titus, and the three generations of mourners, Marcus Andronicus, Lucius, and Lucius's son, each in turn briefly kissing the dead patriarch one last time: "O, take this warm kiss on thy pale cold lips [...] Tear for tear and loving kiss for kiss Thy brother Marcus tenders on thy lips [...] How many thousand times hath these poor lips, When they were living, warmed themselves on thine! O now, sweet boy, give them their latest kiss" (5.3.150-71).
With his choice of rhetoric as a means of ritualizing the emotions that Shakespeare's text calls for, Doesburg levelled the extremes of both brutality and humanity in the play. In accordance with this exercise in restraint and reserve, Anne-Wil Blankers's Tamora was authoritative, but never ostentatiously lustful. Han Kerckhoffs' Aaron was easily the most memorable character in this production. He was frisky rather than diabolic, although his attempt to make Tamora's sons accept the baby boy that imperilled their own succession to the imperial crown was not entirely convincing. Together with some of the Dutch theatre critics, I am still somewhat mystified by the stage image presented before the play proper started, as the audience were taking their seats. At a small dressing table, upstage centre, Aaron, the proverbial incarnation of evil in the play, was daubing his face black. It may be useful in the case of a tragedy as full of horrors as Titus Andronicus to indicate to the audience that this is really only a play. But one's credibility was strained to breaking point when the character pretending to be a black man fathered a black child with Tamora.
Doesburg's Titus had mixed reviews in the best sense of the term. Hanny Alkema writing for Trouw remarked: "Though it is beautiful to watch, it leaves me cold. I can imagine the fascination with mindless violence, but I do not get any of this from the production, however expressive the acting and some of the players' sense of style. Perhaps it is too beautiful."  Loek Zonneveld's experience: "As a director Doesburg achieves something that I have always prized on stage: emotions are illustrated, not shown. On stage, we see an anatomical lesson. Human suffering is dissected with an operating knife, and put on display. We can run away, turn away our eyes, cry "booh" when the play is over. Or sob quietly, about man who has become a wolf to man." Could one of the reasons for such diverging views lie in the nature of Titus as defined by Hein Jansen in his review for de Volkskrant, calling this "Roman soap" a "model of violence without instructions for use"?
1 Loek Zonneveld, "Shakespeare (2)," De Groene Amsterdammer, 15 May 1997. See also her "Shakespeare schetsboek (1)," and "Shakespeare, wreed en waar (3)," De Groene Amsterdammer, 7 and 21 May 1997 respectively.
2 Hanny Alkema, "Mooi om naar te kijken," Trouw, 14 April 1997.
3 Loek Zonneveld, "Shakespeare, wreed en waar (3)," De Groene Amsterdammer, 21 May 1997.
4 Hein Janssen, "Met deze Titus Andronicus is het oppassen geblazen," de Volkskrant, 14 April 1997.
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