The last time I went to the Arcola was for one of those uber-cool east London club nights. Zoe Ford’s production of Titus Andronicus was more similar to my last visit that one may first think; both were gloriously anarchic, alternative and thoroughly exhausting.
The Arcola is an excellent performance space, perhaps one of the most exciting in London. The exposed brickwork and wrought iron beams lend the piece a deliberately deconstructed, rough-around-the-edges feel, a throbbing pulse which pushes the production along with an almost unbearable intensity. Couple this with the Arcola’s intimate and modest seating, and this is Shakespeare in HD.
Ford has set her Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s most gory plays, during 80s Thug Britannia, as Skinheads and Goths clear their throats almost as often as they slit others. The classic Frankie Goes to Hollywood lyric from the period “when two tribes go to war” seems to have been the source of much of her inspiration. Think This is England, rife with National Front insignia and Doc Martins.
Contemporary productions of Shakespeare are at their best when the somewhat archaic language (think of all those thous and dosts) go unnoticed, leaving audiences entranced simply by action and characterisation. This is most certainly the case here, and so perhaps the occasional off-text “fucking bloodclarts” etc that pepper the script are unnecessary, albeit fun. Likewise, the chalked-on graffiti “Saturninus sucks cock” is witty, but I’m sure the bard would have originally found a more flowery way of expressing this sentiment.
The performances themselves from the twelve-strong cast are often remarkable also. Maya Thomas is harrowing as Lavinia, who, unable to communicate, with no tongue to speak and no hands to write, is reduced to a wreck, and manages to be both tender and venomous, whilst Ryan Cloud radiates a menacing charisma and thoroughly owns the space during his scenes as Bassianus. Recent news stories surrounding the English Defence League spring to mind when studying the rest of the ensemble; all create thoroughly unsympathetic and revolting characters that strut and prowl like creatures from a subculture. It is often disturbing to witness.
Brevity is the soul of wit, according to Shakespeare, and Ford seems to have set her production to this belief a little too literally – I could have done with another half an hour of performance (and there’s very few Shakespeare plays about which that could be said) as the second half seemed to cut itself short a little too eagerly; I’m sure underlying themes, such as Titus Andronicus’s decent into madness could have been explored a little more deeply if given just a bit more time. That said, in the heart of London’s trendy zone, sandwiched between the two Dalston stations, the Arcola is home to a highly on-trend, on-point and stylish production. Go see.
Titus Andronicus is at the Arcola Theatre until 26 October. For more information and tickets see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo by Adam Twigg.