Titus Androgynus

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Last night I took part in a reading of Titus Andronicus with the all-female Shakespeare company, Smooth Faced Gentlemen. Having slightly turned away from this kind of theatre in the last few years in favour of devising and live art, it was strange and exciting to slip back into my Shakespeare shoes.

What struck me most (apart from the fact the play is a bit all over the place and there are clear reasons why it’s a lesser known work) was the inherent power of telling this brutal story with an all-female cast.  Smooth Faced Gentleman aren’t on a political mission, they just want to get their hands on Shakespeare’s great roles, which are almost all written for blokes. But, intentionally or otherwise, to me it felt deeply political. With all the roles taken by women, somehow the voices of the actual female characters Tamora and Lavinia took on a different quality. Naturally, I compared the play to Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of The Nightingale, as both draw from Ovid’s Metamorphosis and centre on a woman being raped and violently silenced, with her tongue cut out to stop her naming her attackers. Wereas Wertenbaker’s Philomele is the protagonist; Lavinia is more of a pivot for male-led action to revolve around. However, in the hands of Smooth Faced Gentlemen, with the male parts all read by female actors, Lavinia’s silence was somehow highlighted; here were all these female voices in the absence of hers. It made it harder for me to brush the rape aside as another gruesome plot point amongst many, my mind constantly returning to her silence, her silence filling the room. The most powerful scene for me last night, was in Act II, where Lavinia begs Tamora for help as Tamora’s sons try to rape her in the woods and Tamora refuses. We could see Tamora as like Aaron, her lover, who seems to be cruel without reason. And yet we can sympathise with Tamora, once a queen, then a prisoner, she becomes empress as a way of freeing herself, her only currency is her sexuality and she must use it cannily, even whilst grieving her murdered children. In light of this Tamora’s cruelty towards Lavinia seems more nuanced. We have to confront the reasons why women don’t always help each other, even in the modern world, women who trample on other women because there’s only so much space in the margins. And one thing an all-female cast does is remind you how marginalised women are in these stories, without ever pointing to it; we notice how few girls the girls are playing (three female characters out of about thirty!).

I think, despite it having one of Shakespeare’s weirdest plots (and in some ways because of it-the whole thing feels like a strange, dystopian, gruesome rollercoaster ride) Titus Andronicus is great play for a group of women to take on. There’s a reason why Ovid’s story from Metamorphosis continues to resonate, with the story of Philomele, raped, mutilated, silenced, popping up in poetry from Walter Raleigh to Elliot’s The Wasteland, prose like Margaret Atwood’s Nightingale and plays like Joanna Lauren’s The Three Birds and of course, The Love of The Nightingale. For me, as a feminist, the pairing of rape and silencing is what makes the story so powerful, evoking the idea of being able to vocalise desire as essential to taking ownership one’s sexuality so passionately argued in Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. Smooth Faced Gentleman may be political with a small p, liberating female actors from Shakespeare’s margins, but for me this simple act of telling these stories in women’s voices gives voice to women. It also encourages audiences to see characters as people rather than genders. With so few plays and even fewer films passing the Bechdel test, that feels radical in itself.

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  • […] We’re pleased to be welcoming Associate Director Yaz Al-Shaater back to direct the show, and once again, founder/Artistic Director Ashlea Kaye will fill the shoes of company manager and produce. Also on board to offer two very different approaches to Dramaturgy are Associate Director Tom Crawshaw and new collaborator Anna Beecher. We hope to work with Anna a lot more in the future, so why not get to know her by reading her recent contribution to our blog? […]

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