All-male Shakespeare companies justify their existence in the name of historical accuracy and providing audiences with insight into this important aspect of original Shakespearean practice. Whilst I do not negate the educational importance of such companies, the number of female theatre roles compared to male roles hardly makes this practice fair. Smooth Faced Gentlemen is an emerging all-female Shakespeare company that helps redress this imbalance and allow women the opportunity to take on great roles normally only open to male actors. Whilst they are extremely successful in creating masculine performances, capturing the energy of the text, and director Yaz Al-Shaatar has a superb instinct for striking visual theatre, the reasons behind some of their production choices in Titus Andronicus are unclear and casting tends towards younger performers.
The eight-member cast wears a monochrome uniform of black skinny jeans, ankle boots, white shirts and black braces. Coats, scarves and a wheelchair identify character changes, as do physical and vocal alterations. The set is completely white, but not for long. As Shakespeare’s most gruesome play energetically unfolds and characters are mutilated and killed, the red paint in the tins on the stage edges soon covers the floor, walls and the actors. I’m rather surprised the audience managed to escape any paint splatter. Rather than swords, they have paintbrushes tucked into their waistbands that are dipped in paint before an attack. The paintbrushes were used with the same movements as swords, slicing and stabbing. With such a striking use of weaponry that normally creates rather than kills, it would have been a more unique choice to explore stylized movement rather than emulating real life. As it was, there was a level of absurdity to stabbing someone in the back or slitting a throat with a paintbrush. Perhaps this was a comment on the absurd amount of death and destruction in the play? Perhaps the murders are being compared to art, or even DIY where the old and excess is cleared to make room for new? Or perhaps I am reading too much into it and Al-Shaahtar made this choice simply because it was unique and looked great. White, black and red will always be a powerful colour scheme. The liberal use of red paint highlighted just how brutal this play is.
The performances were on the whole very good. Ashlea Kaye’s Marcus and Demetrius were a highlight of contrast between an ill, old man and scrappy, oversexed young manhood. Kaye is clearly a versatile performer with outstanding stage presence. Ariane Barnes was a formidable Titus, fully believable as the successful general that ruthlessly seeks revenge for his downfall. The ensemble work is excellent with smooth transitions at a fast pace. The ensemble aspect didn’t quite work as the actors remained on stage most of the time, but lounged casually on the periphery, half in the wings, watching the action when not performing. The goal is to enhance the ensemble aspect of the production, but the halfway approach came across as non-committal. Either be present on stage and dynamically contribute to the stage picture, or be out of sight. Otherwise, it lends itself to distractions. I would guess that the oldest cast member is in her early 30s; having a wider range of ages would make their diversity even more commendable.
With a running time of about an hour and 15 minutes, this was a good length to convey the main focal points of the story, but cutting this play can be tough. As one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and his first attempt at writing a tragedy, it can feel quite clunky. Cutting it cannot overcome this quality and can occasionally exacerbate it. In this case, the tragic downfall of the central characters occasionally felt rushed, but not overly so. An interval wasn’t particularly necessary and felt like it occurred very late in the story. Generally in this version, the editing did a good job at preserving the story and capturing Titus’ life rapidly collapsing around him.
As previously mentioned, the energy was extremely high and well-maintained throughout. Moments of humour lightened the tragedy, particularly good was Tamora and her sons’ portrayal of Revenge, Rape and Murder. Another lovely moment is Aaron (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) meeting his newborn son for the first time and refusing to allow the child to be killed. There were numerous others. Smooth Faced Gentlemen have a clear gift for making Shakespeare accessible and telling a cracking story. They are certainly a company to follow as they grow and develop their performances.
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