William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in his 39 plays (If you count “Two Noble Kinsmen” and “Edward III”) covered a huge range of topics from English history, to jealousy, to lechery, to variations on tragedy and variations of comedic situations. Truly it can be said, where there’s a will, there’s a play.
One topic he hammered home with a vengeance with his 1593 tragedy, “Titus Andronicus”, was revenge. Many regular theatergoers may not be familiar with this play as it is rarely performed. That trend did not scare the University of Illinois’ Theatre Department from scheduling “Titus Andronicus” as one of their fall productions. Starting October 24, local audiences can experience just why so many theater companies are a bit gun-shy when it comes to staging this play.
“Titus Andronicus” was a major hit in Shakespeare’s day and there is no doubt Elizabethan audiences loved violent theater, and this play delivers violence in quantity.
In fact, there are no less than 18 events of extreme violence that cover the field from rape, mutilation, unwitting cannibalism and death by stabbing or starvation. Violent excess is hardly a product of modern cinema or video games.
The Bard was well aware that his audiences loved this excess as he would have experienced the success of a contemporary playwright, Thomas Kyd, with his 1587 play, “The Spanish Prisoner.” Kyd’s play would inspire several themes in “Hamlet” and lots of the events in “Titus Andronicus”
“Titus” is set in the early days of the Roman Republic with few specific time signatures. Unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, not a single character or event has any basis in the historical record. This is stage fiction for shock value. Looking at the Bard’s contemporary creations like the three parts of “Henry VI”, “A Comedy of Errors”, “Richard III” and “The Taming of the Shrew”. “Titus Andronicus” looks even more like a singularly unpleasant outlier. Many a die-hard Shakespearean would be thrilled to find that this play was not written by Shakespeare. But contemporary references make it plain the Bard did indeed create “Titus Andronicus”.
The University of Illinois Department of Theatre has teamed director Robert Anderson with adapter Andrea Stevens in creating a neatly cut version that will run around 90 minutes.
Professor Stevens wears many academic hats with appointments in the English Department, Theatre Department and Medieval Studies. She explains her take on adaptation “Titus Andronicus” “By adaptation, I do not mean revision or rewriting, but rather the cutting or paring down of the play for a more streamlined performance (as would have been the practice in Shakespeare’s time)’.
She explains some specific surgery—“in making this particular cut, I zeroed in on what I took to be the central, key, moments in “Titus Andronicus” and, from there, tried to distill the play to its essence or bones”. Scenes that seemed driven by expository dialogue rather than action, for instance, were converted to ‘dumbshows’, meaning inset spectacles where the information is conveyed via silent gesture and movement rather than language”.
“Titus Andronicus” will be performed at Krannert’s Studio Theatre starting October 24. The productions will run on weekends through November 3. For information go to: krannertcenter.com, or call the Krannert box office at—217-333-6280. For a final follow up to your education of this early Shakespearean tragedy, watch Julie Taymor’s 1999 film version, “Titus”. It was filmed in Italy and stars Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. It is the only Shakespearean film of either star.