Edinburgh Fringe 2013
"A vibrant and visceral retelling of Shakespeare’s bloodiest, most underrated tragedy, uncompromisingly wrought by an award-winning, groundbreaking all-female Shakespeare troupe. Two families intertwine in a brutally farcical tale of revenge. Fast, fresh, furious … and funny."
If you’re not familiar with Titus Andronicus, the simplest explanation is that it’s the Quentin Tarantino movie of Shakespeare. An over-the-top revenge tragedy that couples multiple limb-removals with pantomime villainish plotting, it makes up in gore what it lacks in sanity. In a modern context it’s pretty damn hard to play straight, so the Smooth Faced Gentlemen don’t even bother to try.
The play opens with an ominous (and obvious) Chekhov’s Gun: three paint cans of fake blood lined up along the front of the stage. Other than that, the sets are minimal, just some white plastic sheeting with a few bloodstains left over from last night. After ten days of performances, the actors’ plain white shirts are starting to take on a subtle pink tint after being repeatedly “stabbed” with bloody paintbrushes every night. Even if you don’t know the play, it’s not difficult to work out what’s coming.
Even after being cut down to an hour and five minutes, the story is easy to follow. Caught in a cycle of revenge, Titus Andronicus and Tamora, Queen of the Goths (a proto-Lady Macbeth to the maniacal Emperor Saturninus) murder and mutilate each other’s families, accompanied by daubs of fake blood and severed heads in plastic bags. The first ten minutes or so are a little dodgy, but as soon as the audience cottons on to the fact that the show is being played for laughs, this grand guignol becomes enormously entertaining.
This all-female company are absolutely plausible as the predominantly male cast of characters, with Henri Merriam particularly convincing as the aging Andronicus. Francesca Binefa is laugh-out-loud funny as the crazy-eyed Saturninus, but Vivienne Acheampong is the standout performer of the production, in the role of Tamora’s lover, Aaron. Slyly breaking the fourth wall to deliver Shakespeare’s puns directly to the audience, she has no problem switching between serious drama and mocking humour.
Witty, violent, and playing into the ridiculous nature of the play, the Smooth Faced Gentlemen somehow manage to make it seem perfectly reasonable to laugh uproariously at someone having their hands cut off. The funniest show you’re likely to see about mass murdering Romans.