Presented by Eldritch Theatre
Shakespeare’s bloody revenge epic, Titus Andronicus, is a favourite of mine. It is a deliciously angry play; I love its cruel brutality and dark humour. Essentially, the story sees Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and Titus, a renowned Roman general, use their children in a sick game of Who’s the Nastiest? In this workshop production of Who’s Afraid of Titus?, Sky Gilbert’s adaptation is an eccentric fusion of queer aesthetics, horror-comedy and soft-core fetish porn.
For the most part, this is Shakespeare’s text. It plays like a highlight reel of the play’s key moments with some modern, high concept embellishments. Gilbert’s artistic flourishes are, at best, captivating, at worst, bewildering. The performances range from serviceable to riveting.
The first scene, in which Tamora (Elley-Ray Hennessy) begs Titus (Brian Smegal) for her eldest son’s life, has some rather appalling acting that doesn’t come close to honouring the poetry. Hennessy hisses and shrieks her way through this introduction and the soft-spoken Smegal, far from conveying any sense of nobility or command, seems like he’s checking into a resort.
Like so much of this re-imagining, the deliberate camp is obvious, but it doesn’t feel evocative in this opening, just goofy. Very quickly though, once Tamora teams up with her lecherous sons, Chiron (John Humeniuk) and Demetrius (Max Ackerman), and her lover, Aaron the Moor (Ray Jacildo), the chemistry and charisma quickly intensify.
Dressed in black leather, torn jeans and bondage accessories, they evoke a grotesque, discomfiting carnality. Their sweaty, fleshy ferocity is a visceral delight. Gilbert very obviously contrasts them with the Andronicus crew—who are dressed elegantly in white and carry themselves with aristocratic ease.
As Titus’ brother, Marcus, Sandy Crawley has some quaint, amusing scenes with Smegal. Their doddering rapport is genuinely endearing and grounds the more grotesque aspects of the story by establishing the mundane mechanics of their day-to-day world.
My favourite character in the play, Aaron, does not figure as prominently here as I would have hoped, but Gilbert has retained my favourite moments—the confession (“Ah, but that I had not done a thousand more…”) and saving his infant son from the murderous hands of Chiron and Demetrius (“This before all the world do I prefer…”). As performatively villainous as Aaron is, his furious humanity is undeniable and Jacildo conveys both the venom and vulnerability.
Gilbert and his team have crafted an experience in which disruption of theatrical form is blended into the drama itself. The Narrator (Veronika Hurnik) invites us to move through various spaces within and outside of the Red Sandcastle Theatre. She also plays several parts, jumping into scenes haphazardly, and lamp-shading the artifice with cheeky asides.
The role of Titus’ traumatized daughter, Lavinia, is shared by two performers—August Monet (pre-rape) and George Alevizos (post-rape). This choice is, at first, quite baffling as it does break our emotional investment when the switch first occurs. As a coda, Gilbert re-purposes some text and unites the Lavinias, giving the device a poetic shape, though its ultimate meaning is tricky to parse.
Gilbert has indicated that the question of whether art can cause real harm is a core idea behind this re-working. The intention sounds imposing, but his production doesn’t feel particularly dangerous. The violence of the play is already there, of course. The rape and mutilation of Lavinia is harrowing and the finale has so much death in quick succession, with such darkly comic intensity, it’s quite absurd.
With simulated anal fisting, chainsaw masturbation and pink heart balloons drifting into the sky, Gilbert’s shtick is never boring. Who’s Afraid of Titus? feels gently radical—not as graphic as I expected, nor as confrontational as I feared. It is when his adaptation and direction capture the power of Shakespeare’s characters and language that his vision is truly revelatory.