BRATTLEBORO—Is Shakespeare breaking bad? That’s what Keely Eastley, who compares one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays with the popular cable crime drama, contends.
This weekend, Aug. 10-12, New England Youth Theater (NEYT) presents Titus Andronicus in a production directed by David Vann from the Birmingham School of Acting in England, with the vocal coaching of Eastley, from the Yale School of Acting, who now teaches in Boston.
The play stars 17 youths who are participating in NEYT’s Senior Shakespeare Summer Camp. Evening performances on Friday and Saturday are at 7 p.m., with a matinee on Sunday matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
“Like the television series Breaking Bad, Titus Andronicus is a dark violent show but with humor in it,” Eastley said. “It was Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and in some ways a lot more melodramatic than his later work. For those expecting a sophisticated drama with great internal analysis of character and motivation, Titus may come as a shock.”
Jessica Callahan, one of the founders of the NEYT Alumni Association, says that Titus “is all about revenge and is so incredibly bloody, the director is asking the design team to come up with a way to use buckets of gore for the show.”
She describes the plot to prove her point.
“Titus conquers a neighboring country, brings that country’s Queen and princes to Rome, and sacrifices one of her princes in cold blood to appease those souls on the Roman side who have died in battle. The Queen marries Rome’s new Caesar, sends her sons to murder Caesar’s opposition, and rape and maim his betrothed (Titus’s daughter). She captures and beheads Titus’s two sons, has Titus behead himself, and has her husband exile another of Titus’s sons. Titus is then ingloriously revenged upon her, and almost everyone in the play dies. End of play.”
Emma Bliss, who, in a gender switch, stars as Titus, said she found the play to be “very intense and gruesome, with lots of death and sexuality.” But she was quick to add that she and her fellow teenagers in Shakespeare Camp are “having a lot of fun becoming bloody people.”
According to the director, Vann, Titus was “the most successful [play] of Shakespeare’s early career. It is particularly bloodthirsty.”
And if Shakespeare’s audiences are anything like today’s — and, in many ways, it is safe to assume all audiences are fundamentally alike — the very histrionic violence of the play may be why it gained such favor with Elizabethans.
“As Titus Andronicus moves from one catastrophe to another,” said Vann, “events are so sensational and shocking that everything becomes quite unreal.”
He added, “I made the directorial decision in approaching such a piece to overdo the gore until the audience gets to the point that they begin saying to themselves, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
Eastley said she and Vann are presenting the show in a somewhat “tongue in cheek” manner.
“It all is rather absurd,” she said. “Our audience’s belief in realism must be suspended. Shakespeare’s drama is a crazy, violent world where four people die in the space of three lines.”
Parallels to contemporary work
Like Eastley, Vann sees Titus as very similar to popular dramas of our time. Last week, the director took the cast to see a showing the new Batman movie Dark Knight Rising at the Latchis Theatre, and cast members found the similarities between the movie and their play phenomenal.
“Like in Titus, the events in the movie move from high drama to high drama without giving the audience a breath in between,” said Vann. “It was all fabulously unbelievable. Bruce Wayne must get out of a foreign prison from which escape is virtually impossible to save Gotham City, which is expected to blow up within 24 hours. In our production of Titus, we are consciously playing on the parallels between these two works of popular entertainment.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “I must say that Titus is also quite reflective too much of what is happening today in our violent world, like what occurred in Colorado at The Dark Knight premiere [last month]. Strangely, the play is ridiculous but also true-to-life.”
Sandy Klein, mentor and faculty advisor at NEYT, continued this line of thought.
“It really seems with how we communicate — Facebook, Twitter, comments on news stories and blogs — hate comes out of people so fast, ” she said. “It’s shocking, it’s really shocking, and sometimes I’m just not sure we see what we’re doing — how we’re putting that hate out there."
Callahan said Titus “is such an interesting play because it allows the audience to get excited about both parties’ horrible revenge, but as they walk out of the theater, we hope they will ask themselves, “Was bloody revenge the right answer? Was there another way?"
Eastley said she believes that however “over-the-top” Titus might seem, it still pursues many of the themes that run throughout Shakespeare’s more mature plays. In particular, she sees this early tragedy as a conflict between the concepts of “revenge” and “avenge.”
“Revenge is about retribution, but avenge is about re-establishing some moral order in a disturbed world. Interestingly, in Titus all the revengers die; it is the avengers who survive to build the new world.”
Vann summed up the play by saying that Titus is concerned with “the length to which people will go to protect their own. Now, doesn’t that sound like so many of the international and domestic issues we face daily?”