Titus Andronicus @ theSpace, Surgeon's Hall
Sometimes a dramatic setting change of a well-known work can go disastrously wrong but when it’s pulled off, it can be difficult to imagine the piece being performed any other way. Hiraeth Artistic Productions and director Zoe Ford have done just that, by taking Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy of revenge and family and moving it to a 1980s England where skinhead gangs rule the roost and fight for supremacy.
The turf war of this production is politically charged, aptly brutal and populated with a series of unlikeable but undeniably gripping characters: Titus is a swaggering gang leader, Tamora is an Irish immigrant, equal parts seductive and deadly, and Aaron the Moor is a Jamaican charmer who plays the game. This is an adaptation that feels entirely natural, both faithful to the original material and entirely relevant to its setting and to the modern day, with a skilfully edited version of the text keeping the pacing fast and furious, aided by some added modern profanities. When flyers promising to defend the land from “foreign invasion” are scattered across the audience and Saturninus’s face is plastered over a Union Jack on a poster, it all feels eerily familiar, in light of current political goings-on.
While the blood flow is kept surprisingly light, the brutality is never spared, to somewhat mixed effect. While Titus removing his own hand is excruciating in its brilliance, the rape of Lavinia feels misjudged, with its use of The Human League and the comedic joking of the rapist brothers beforehand. While the intent is evident, in execution it steps more than once into the gratuitous, and feels painfully at odds with the rest of the show.
Hiraeth’s Titus Andronicus is a stirring example of how to not only perform Shakespeare but how to reimagine old ideas to make them fresh. Darkly funny, gripping, brutal and uncomfortably familiar, it’s easy to imagine this production making it to the West End.