Director Adena Jacobs On The Modern Horror Of Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’

24 August 2019 | 9:01 am | Hannah Story

Director Adena Jacobs speaks to Hannah Story about the myth of 'Titus Andronicus'.

An extremely gory revenge play popular in the 16th century, Titus Andronicus was widely maligned for the next 300-odd years, poet TS Eliot describing it as “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written”. 

By midway through the 20th century, though, the text was coming back into fashion, and was mounted on mainstages across the globe, the subject of endless interpretation and reinterpretation. A film starring Anthony Hopkins as Titus was made in 1999.

Since Bell Shakespeare was formed in 1990, the company has never put on Titus Andronicus – until now. (In 2008, Bell did stage German playwright Heiner Müller’s heavily political 1984 adaptation Anatomie Titus.) Director Adena Jacobs has a few theories on why that might be the case, citing the fact it’s one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, its extreme violence, and its beleaguered place in the critical discourse.

“I think it needs the right group of artists at the right time to do it,” Jacobs concludes.

“The interpretation is about, in some ways, approaching it through the myth of Titus Andronicus – so we're trying to understand why it is that we tell this particular story, which is flooded with images of violence, and particularly images of violence towards women.”

Then, the aim is to understand how its images of gendered and racialised violence, and the power structures therein, “kind of laid a template for how we’ve told stories about violence in years to come”. 

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The group of artists to take on the task includes Jacobs, directing her first Shakespeare play, and Jane Montgomery Griffiths starring as Titus himself. 

Casting Griffiths was always Jacobs’ intention, not because she wanted to gender-flip the text so much as because she is “the perfect human to play Titus”: “She’s such a brilliant actor and brilliant collaborator.” 

Flipping Titus’ gender is part of what Jacobs describes as her “queered approach” to casting: “The way I’ve cast across the board unsettles the categories that you might expect different roles to play.

“For me, that's about trying to add dimension and more complexity to the roles and to particular moments in the piece.”

Specifically, she mentions the moment at the end of the play, where Titus kills his daughter, Lavinia, as a kind of ‘honour killing’ because she was sexually assaulted. 

“I think in 2019 we can only read that in a particular way or it's quite a hard thing to stomach – the idea of a mother performing that act on stage somehow opens up different questions about what that means.” 

The most famous and most alarming image in the play is of Lavinia after she has been raped, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she cannot name her assailants. Jacobs sees this as being the moment in time to try, as a female director, to address what that image says about our society.

“What does it mean to have your tongue cut off in the face of this unfathomable act?” Jacobs muses. “And what does it mean to lose your capacity to speak or to choose not to speak or to be denied language in the face of horror? And what does that mean in terms of agency and language and power?”

Titus Andronicus poses problems for contemporary theatre makers and audiences, Jacobs notes, because of both the intense misogyny that runs through the text and the graphicness of its violence.

While Jacobs admits that maybe ten years ago, she would’ve depicted the violence in an intense, visceral way – “I would want it to be really affective and create a kind of shock in the audience” – now she sees us as “overwhelmed and oversaturated” with images of violence. But she’s not looking to stylise the violence, or move it off stage either.

“I guess the challenge of this production is to find a way to usher in that violence, summon it into the theatre, but without doing any of those things. Because I think people wouldn't wanna watch it and I don't think I would wanna watch it either. 

“I think it's about that violence being fractured and fragmented and more about the audience's imagination and associations and relation to a moment.”

As a feminist theatre director, Jacobs thought if she was going to take on Shakespeare “this would be one of the ones that I would love to do”.

“In some ways, I am attracted to it because I am afraid of it – that always makes me curious as to why, and what I might be able to offer something like that.

“I want to do the play, because it's, for me, it's about our basic humanness – so what it means to be a human, who is considered more or less human than somebody else, what is the value of human life and the human body and who gets to decide. And what happens to a society which has lost its sense of humanity?

“How do we try to recover or reassemble ourselves from trauma or from a sort of society in which dehumanisation is the norm?”

That question is a “bleak kind of analogy with our own world”. 

While Jacobs is not directly using Titus Andronicus to allude to issues in Australia in 2019, she notes that our society’s traumas – whether our history of violent dispossession from First Nations peoples, or the way we leave asylum seekers to languish in offshore prisons – are the “undercurrents” of the production. “They're the things which drive me as an artist to try to understand why these things are the way they are,” says Jacobs.

“It gets at two things that we're talking about – one is about not being able to face and confront the history of dispossession, but the other is about not being able to name the kinds of inequalities and tortures that are happening right as we speak. And both of those things, I think, as a country certainly, we're unable to swallow. 

“As an artist, I'm constantly asking the question of 'why is that?', 'what is it that makes that so…' I'm not necessarily sure that a Shakespeare play can answer those questions, but I think somehow there's something about Titus that harnesses the energy of that kind of terror and anxiety, and the sort of crises that we face.”