Titus Andronicus | Her Infinite Variety EnsemblePhoto - Vivienne Glance

In launching a new theatre company, you want to start with a bang. You want to make a lasting, positive impression that will have your audiences coming back for more. But for their inaugural production, the ‘mono-gendered’ Her Infinite Variety Ensemble (HIVE) chose Titus Andronicus, arguably one of the bloodiest and most controversial plays in the Shakespearean canon, which in its execution, becomes an uneven and average night out at the theatre.

Titus Andronicus is the story of a Roman general, who is called home upon the death of the current Emperor. Upon his return, he becomes embroiled in the politics and machinations of those around him; in particular, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who has sworn revenge upon the titular Titus for the humiliation and defeat she suffered at his hands. And speaking of hands, by the time the dust has settled, the body count stands at three hand amputations, a tongue amputation, two beheadings, a rape, numerous dead bodies and the world’s most unappetising pie.

Needless to say, this play is not for the faint of heart, but unfortunately, neither was this production. In the hands of director Jenny de Reuck, Titus Andronicus was a patchy, disjointed show, whose success and impact was impeded by issues with pacing, text and performance.

The main issue for me was the pacing; it oscillated between being slow and overly dramatic, or rushed and underwhelming. The opening twenty minutes of the show in particular were slow and tentative, but seemed to recover thereafter. When there were moments of energy; it seemed harried, and skittish, substituting real attack and pace with raised voices and unnecessary, jittery movement.

The final confrontation between Titus (Nicola Bartlett) and Tamora (Tiffany Barton) was dealt with so quickly, and in such an offhand way that it made you wonder what you had sat through the last two hours for. It was then followed by an overly long and tedious denouement from Titus’ son Lucius (Olivia Hogan) that had you longing for the final blackout. That’s not to say the performances in the final scene were bad, or without substance; but they just seemed to lack any drive or dramatic tension. Whilst de Reuck wanted to explore the contrast between civilisation and barbarianism, I don’t believe civilisation means lack of pace, or barbarism means lack of control.

The handling of the Shakespearean text was also predominantly hit and miss; some cast members showed wonderful control and execution, whereas others struggled to progress beyond recitation, and imbue the language with life, character and intent. In particular, Nicola Bartlett seemed to struggle as Titus, with an error laden and flat performance that struggled to give her character an internal life beyond the standard grief-stricken father and weary general. In contrast, the work of Rhoda Lopez as the Chorus was especially good; she added much needed energy, attack and atmosphere to the show, especially through her use of movement and instrumentation. Olivia Hogan was also excellent as Lucius, showing great stillness, gravitas and handling of the text.

Whilst the minimalist design ethic of ‘substance rather than style’ allowed the emphasis to remain on the characters and text, rather than enhancing our involvement in the action, it only served to shine a spotlight on the elements of the show that for the most part, weren’t working.

That being said, when it did work, Titus Andronicus was capable of being really effective; the rape scene between Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Mikala Westall) and Tamora’s two sons Chiron (Sarah Courtis) and Demetrius (Emma Jermy) was particularly atmospheric. The scene of Titus’ hand amputation was also very well handled by all involved, and was definitely a squeamish moment for the audience. Particularly towards the end of the first act there were some wonderful moments, where the movement and atmosphere combined to create a chilling environment.

I feel I should point out that none of my comments are linked with the ‘mono-gender’, or ‘all-female’ ethos of the Her Infinite Variety Ensemble (HIVE). For the most part, I did not perceive this show as ‘females playing male characters, I saw this as ‘performers playing characters’, regardless of gender. Gender itself became a non-issue; as with all Shakespearean performances, once you got into the text and language, it became about the characters and relationships. Titus was Titus, irrespective of the body in which he was living.

Overall, I really, really wanted this production to work; I wanted it to come charging out of the blocks and showcase the brilliant work Perth is capable of generating. But unfortunately, it struggled out of the blocks, dragging a sea anchor of uneven pacing and lacklustre execution. When it did manage to break free and really soar, I was incredibly engaged and absorbed. It’s just a pity that was only for thirty minutes out of a two hour debut show. Better luck next time, hopefully.

Her Infinite Variety Ensemble (HIVE) presents
by William Shakespeare

Directed by Jenny De Reuck

Venue: Subiaco Arts Centre Studio
Dates: 10 – 21 May, 2011
Times: 7.30pm, matinee Saturday 21 May 2pm
Tickets: $29 Standard/ $24 Concession/ Student $19
Bookings: BOCS 94841133 | www.bocsticketing.com.au

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