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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review: Titus Andronicus

Does Excess=Success
by Rachel Zuroff

Blood, excess, murder, rape . . . The Montreal Shakespeare Theatre Company is currently staging William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, one of the playwright’s least performed pieces. The play revolves around its title character Titus, as he returns to Rome victorious from war.  With him is the Goth royal family, brought back as prisoners of war.  The first scene of the play is marked by a series of Titus’ rash decisions, including the execution of the eldest son of Tamora, Queen of the Goths.  Titus’ decision to execute Tamora’s son rather than to be lenient unleashes the play’s subsequent cycle of horrors.

It is merely an opportunity to enjoy as a  voyeur the pain and suffering of others.

Shakespeare’s plays are always difficult to perform.  They were written for a different audience, and modern publics are often unprepared and unaccustomed to their particular brand of melodrama.  Thus, it can be particularly difficult to perform Shakespeare’s plays, because it is so easy to slip into excess or melodrama.  The Montreal Shakespeare Theatre Company is on the brink.  Some of the acting is quite good.  Christopher Moore as Titus, Jessica B. Hill as Tamora and Jaa Smith Johnson as Aaron all offer strong performances.  The original percussion score and chorus members are quite good.  The pace of the play was mostly fluid and quick.  Nonetheless, Ellie Moon’s performace as Lavinia was weak, the rape scene was far too long and the use of blood excessive.

However, the real problem with the play is its story.  Unlike Shakespeare’s later tragedies, Titus Andronicus seems more like a Renaissance slasher film than anything else.  According to its press release, Titus Andronicus “explores the underlying theme of man’s inhumanity to man; a topic . . . as relevant today as it was in Shakespeare’s day.”  Yet, I consider this an excuse.  In my opinion, there is no redeeming moral or significance to the play.  It is merely an opportunity to enjoy as a  voyeur the pain and suffering of others.

I’m not trying to criticize too harshly the current production of Titus.  I think they do their best, but I also think there is a reason why Shakespeare’s first tragedy is performed so infrequently.

Titus Andronicus is playing at the Monument National in Montreal from August 2 to 13. For mature audiences only.   


  1. I agree with much of this. However, I found both the rape scene and Ellie Moon's Lavinia to be extremely powerful, among the best that the show offered in fact, as did everyone I have spoken to who saw this production.

  2. Someone needs to teach Jaa Smith Johnson how to perform Shakespeare.

  3. Chris Moore and Alex Goldrich are both obviously very talented but I don't really have a nice word to say about the rest of the cast as well as the director. Subpar.

  4. Wow! This is quite the hateful place full of insightful comments. Loved the show by the way! Cheers!

  5. To summarize Titus as "merely an opportunity to enjoy as a voyeur the pain and suffering of others" is to ignore the wealth of Renaissance revenge tragedy and to ignore a trajectory that begins in classical Greece. It is true that Titus has enjoyed a mixed critical reception, but though it is performed perhaps infrequently today, it has enjoyed a history of popularity (Stratford is producing it this season). I haven't seen this performance yet, but I think you would serve us better if you stepped out of your own squeamishness and discussed the play's deep pathos, the flaws of honour and patriarchy, and the enaction of justice through blood.

  6. yes, enjoy revenge tragedy (and I do) but there are many who see them as mere potboilers and reject the form completely. It IS a valid argument (just as the present day argument about slasher films is a valid one).

  7. I think you'll find few slasher films with speeches like this:

    Why, tis no matter, man; if they did hear,
    They would not mark me, or if they did mark,
    They would not pity me, yet plead I must;
    Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones;
    Who, though they cannot answer my distress,
    Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes,
    For that they will not intercept my tale:
    When I do weep, they humbly at my feet
    Receive my tears and seem to weep with me;
    And, were they but attired in grave weeds,
    Rome could afford no tribune like to these.
    A stone is soft as wax,--tribunes more hard than stones;
    A stone is silent, and offendeth not,
    And tribunes with their tongues doom men to death.

    The idea that revenge tragedy, as a form, can be
    rejected completely is unworthy. The form speaks to an important social context of the tension between the rule of law and sovereign authority, and so I can't accept your claim that it is a valid argument. It also seems inconsistent with the statement that you enjoy revenge tragedy, unless you and the reviewer are not the same person.

    Titus is meant to make an audience uncomfortable, and that is its strength--not its weakness.

  8. I hope everyone who paid 30 bucks is glad the actors an crew saw none of it.

  9. You know it's not really my style to comment on posts that people leave about our company or our shows. I believe everyone is entitled to their opinions and I am rarely that moved to write any kind of retort back. But I gotta say that when I read this "anonymous" post about the cast and crew not seeing any of the "30 bucks paid"...well I guess I just had to respond.

    Let me start by saying that anyone who posts comments anonymously is in my opinion a coward. Hiding behind this veil of anonymity is just another way of telling people that you don't believe enough in your convictions to stand behind them by posting your real name. Would you come up to me on the street and say what you say anonymously? No? Then you're a coward! But that's just my opinion...Ace Lopes Producer of the Montreal Shakespeare Theatre Company (see...that's how you stand behind your convictions).

    But the real point of this reply is to answer the ignorant and inane comment about the money. Firstly we only charged $25.00. The extra $5.00 were fees and taxes that the theatre tacks on. As a matter of fact we offered to sell anyone who wanted, cheaper tickets directly through us. And if "Anonymous" would like their money back so that they can give it to the cast all means, come see me in person and I will be glad to give you your money back. But I'm betting Mr. or Mrs. "Anonymous" will not be doing that because they'd have to actually stand admit that they said it.

    With a cast of over 30 people and theatre rentals being what they are...does anyone really believe that there is any really money to be made? I defy anyone out there to put on a production like ours at the same theatre space, spend the same amount of money in production costs that we spent and then be able to pay 31 actors, and 7 crew. If you can do it...then good for you!!! But again I'm betting you can't.

    Everyone going into this knew that there would be no money and everyone was fine with it. And if they weren't they would've mentioned it. We all knew what to expect. No actor or crew member put up any money to do this show. My partner and I put in more hours than any of the cast or crew and we take 100% of the risk. We do it because we love it and everyone in this this town knows that's how it works! And we don't expect to make any money. We expect a loss and we're ok with it. We feel that the opportunity we give young actors and even seasoned actors far outweighs the monetary rewards they would get. So one got paid...including us. As if that's any of your business anyway!

    So in closing let me plagiarize your comment a little..."I hope everyone who paid 30" or 25 or 20 bucks "is glad" that they got to see a great show put on by a team of 31 actors, 1 musician and 7 crew members. And where the money goes shouldn't be a factor in your enjoyment of the show! We're all very proud of the show and the only people making money from it is the theatre space. And if you don't believe me...come out from that wonderful veil of anonymity you hold so dear and come talk to me personally. I'll explain it to you in terms you can fully understand...Mr. or Mrs. "Anonymous".

  10. A comment had been removed as it did not follow posting guidelines.

  11. There is a real problem in this town in regards to actors and technicians in English theatre getting fairly compensated for their work. I think the first step to finding solutions is being able to discuss it respectfully. With that in mind I would really like to discuss this issue with you Ace. Before I even begin, it's hard to stage a show on your own. So I commend you and and your team on the accomplishment of doing this.

    I can see how that anonymous posting would be frustrating, but I can also understand why people are uncomfortable discussing this stuff openly. I wrote an article not so long ago about how problematic I felt fair compensation in this town is. I didn't call out specific companies and there were still ramifications in my personal and professional life. Further to that if any member of your cast or crew came forward and admitted to writing that, would you consider working with them again? I say that because that comment is just snarky enough that it sounds like it came from someone who has interacted personally with you.

    At the very least this person was aware that you didn't compensate the cast or crew on your show. Which I don't find you've been open about. Before the show went up there was an interview in Charlebois where you were asked, "Financing must be difficult with such a large cast; did you do a fundraiser?" Nowhere in your response did you disclose that the people on your team were not being financially compensated. That omission made it appear as though they were. And contrary to your belief that information is no one's business, it is. It's the business of the people working for you, the business of people paying to see your show, it's even the business of people thinking about seeing your show. If you believe that you're doing the right thing, shouldn't you be more than happy to talk about it? I think also that question gave you a real opportunity to talk about why people weren't being paid and what we as a community could do to help change that.

    When people are being paid I think it's irresponsible to adopt the attitude that you are doing them a favor, giving them the opportunity to work for free. I produce and direct shows too so I know how tempting this viewpoint can be, especially when you're working really hard and you've invested your own money. Ultimately though it's your project. You made the choice to have such a large cast and to stage the show at a really nice and therefore expensive space. The people working on the show were volunteers committed to your vision and I hope you treated them with respect and gratitude.

    When a project I want to do requires me to ask people to work for me for free I strive to do the following things:

    1. Work around their work schedules (This may mean being in rehearsal longer, but people have to eat and pay rent. I don't want to leave anyone out who isn't in an economic position to take time off work.)

    2. I happily offer to share the books with everyone. I want them to know why I'm asking them to donate their time. I also want them to know that I'm not getting paid.

    3. I have no intention of doing projects for the rest of my career that require me and the people working for me to be volunteers. They're stepping stones towards projects where everyone will be fairly compensated.

    I would be interested to know how you navigate asking people to volunteer. Do you work around their schedules? Did you pay yourself or make a profit off your investment? And what specifically are the benefits that the artists (actors, stage managers, designers and technicians) involved are receiving in exchange for their time? I know you said that money shouldn't be a factor of enjoyment in the show but for me it is. I want to know that people are being treated fairly when I give my ticket money for a show.

  12. "The people working on the show were volunteers committed to your vision and I hope you treated them with respect and gratitude."

    Quite right. Now, if only Ace HAD treated the cast and crew with said "respect and gratitude".

  13. I see that once again Mr. or Ms. "Anonymous" strikes again! I can tell that you're trying to get some sort of rise out of me but sadly it won't work. This thread has just turned into a bitch fest. I had written a long reply to Crystle's post(which incidentally she had the balls to post her name to so kudos for that!)but I decided not to. Now #1: You either have no idea what you're talking about or #2: You're a disgruntled actor or crew member who just doesn't have the guts to say what you need to say to my (our) face(s). If you are one of these then it's on you! If you had a problem with me or my partner then you should man (or woman) up and let us know. But no...instead you post a comment like that...anonymously. Why? Why hide behind anonymity? Do you not believe enough in what your saying and in your convictions to post your name to it? I certainly have never posted anything anonymously. Why? Cause I'm not a coward like you!!

    When you run a business..ANY business, one thing is for sure: you will always have a disgruntled employee. No matter what you do or say there will always be someone out there that you just cannot please no matter what you do! We are one of the few theatre companies in this city that actually pay our actors (for our school tours) and have employed hundreds of actors over the years. We've given a lot of actors a chance that many companies wouldn't take a second look at with some great results. Obviously not everyone is going to be happy but we do the best we can. But I suggest that before bitching about something, you look to your own actions first. No one ever seems to want to be accountable for their actions. They're always in the right...just like the coward "Anonymous".

  14. Ace,

    As someone that brought 4 ticket purchases to your show, I'd be interested in reading your response to Crystle.

    I thought the ticket prices were fair--but I also thought that your crew were being paid (something). My grasp on the economics of the situation is admittedly loose, and I'd love a little more insight.

  15. The response was too long and I just don't feel it's necessary any longer. All I can say is that for us too make any money (paid cast & crew etc...) we'd have had to charge double or triple even! The show was expensive to produce and yes as Crystle said that's what we chose but if we would've had to cut corners just to pay the cast the show would've been done with like 5 people instead of 30! It's just way too expensive to put on a show like that at that or any other venue really and keep the ticket prices low. I'll be totally honest and tell everyone that we lost money on this show but as I've said before....we really don't mind because it's what we love to do.

    If we would've had to pay the cast this show would never have been possible. That's that. It's not that we didn't want to pay people it's that we couldn't. This is a very standard practice and I shouldn't be the only one having to defend or even explain our position. If you or anyone else enjoyed the show that all that matters. Our cast worked their asses off to get people to come see the show and they knew they weren't getting paid. So that tells you something! When I go see a show I don't care how much or even IF people are getting paid. that's between the company and the actors. All I care is that the show was enjoyable. And in the end that's really all that should matter to the theatre goer. The rest should be between the artist and the company.


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