Much Ado About Nothing, this is not. With Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome: A Shakespeare Commentary, Bell Shakespeare and the Queensland Theatre Company have created what must be their most challenging production to date. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, not at all PC, and may have left some in the audience in need of a stiff drink. But the aim of Anatomy Titus wasn’t to score ovations. It was to look closely at power and violence without giving anyone the option to change the channel.
Anatomy Titus is certainly visually disturbing with its spare, bloody set and characters who can’t seem to hold onto their body parts. But it’s the overarching themes of mindless brutality and gross abuses of power that are even more difficult to come to terms with. The script is a 1984 adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Titus Andronicus by German dramatist Heiner Müller. This adaptation was Müller’s attempt to understand the violence he saw in the world around him. In 2008, the relevancy of Müller’s work is, sadly, undiminished. The world of Anatomy Titus is one where loyalty and morality are sad jokes, and madmen often make more sense than they should. Watching the macabre characters cavort across the blood-stained stage, it’s almost as if Shakespeare is peering through the centuries, forcing us to confront the continuing global conflicts to which we are so often desensitised.
It should be obvious by now that this isn’t theatre for everyone. Anatomy Titus ensures we don’t feel for its characters or gain any neat insights as the curtain falls. Instead of attempting to sugar-coat this harshness, the production revels in it, resulting in more than a few sharp intakes of breath from the audience. But there are intriguing layers to be found beyond its violent exterior. Moments of black-as-night humour and strange beauty can also be glimpsed between the murder and mayhem, not to mention set design and choreography that is nothing short of ingenious. Through it all, the actors display stamina and precision that will leave you reeling.
One of the great achievements for director Michael Gow and his cast is that they manage to maintain a visceral, urgent sense to the action while navigating Müller’s demanding vision and Shakespeare’s complex language. Gow and his actors have created something that’s very much alive, despite the fact that death is its main concern. As always, it’s a treat to see John Bell on stage, particularly when he is enjoying a role as much as that of General Titus Andronicus, who grows all the more shocking as his grief turns to lunacy. In fact, every member of the all-male cast seemed to be relishing his chance to tackle Shakespearian material in this inventive and often outrageous environment. Thomas Campbell was particularly fun to watch as Titus’s daughter Lavinia in both her sassy and shattered forms.
Despite all these positives, there were times when Anatomy Titus narrowly avoided losing its audience. The sheer volume of violence and obscenity, while arguably legitimate, may have caused some to simply switch off rather than consider the implications of what they were seeing. But again, the concern of this production is never the comfort of its viewers. While sometimes unsettling, it is exhilarating to watch theatre that walks the line between brilliant and sordid without a scrap of safety net. This is perhaps the result Müller, the production companies, and indeed Shakespeare himself, were hoping for.
Bell Shakespeare and the Queensland Theatre Company present
Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome: A Shakespeare Commentary
By Heiner Müller | Translated By Julian Hammond
Venue: The Playhouse | Canberra Theatre Centre
Dates: Oct 8 - 18
Duration: 120 minutes (no interval)