Sat in my front row seat in USyd’s intimate Cellar Theatre for SUDS’ The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, I (ironically enough) felt like Lady Macbeth. Which is to say, a spot of blood had appeared on my hand. Only I wasn’t hallucinating — this droplet of fake blood really had flung out off the stage and onto my right pointer. If you’re unfamiliar with the source material, let this be your warning: there will be blood. Lots of it. And some vomit (mercifully less airborne).
Director Jim Bradshaw and Assistant Director Amelia Vogelsang have adapted the play from Shakespeare’s late Roman setting to a peri-apocalyptic world filled with intergenerational suffering. Their changes to the text are relatively minimal, but the play’s visuals – created by Set and Costume Co-ordinator Bella Wellstead along with Rachel Hui, Sam Hill-Wade, Nikki Eghlimi — communicate the context.
Rubbish is strewn through the performance space. The walls are heavily graffitied, with contemporary messages like ‘no profit on a dead planet’ to be found throughout. The imperial throne is constructed out of debris — an air hose, a car part, some foam.
The costumes are woven together out of largely black and white scraps of fabric, cords, cans, wire and other refuse. Although their construction recalls primary school craft projects, they’re both visually impactful and manage to pull together references ranging from Roman garb to modern dystopias.
Also eye-catching, if repulsive, are the makeup and special effects from Cedar Podmore, Georgie Eggleton and Adele Beaumont. Horribly real-looking abscesses appear on the faces of many of the characters, along with swishes of black eyeshadow. All up, the visual landscape of the play is undeniably compelling.
The visuals are matched in tone by the eerie, robotic sound design from Alex Paterson, which feels straight out of a dystopian film, and the washes of bluish light employed by Lighting Designer Oliver Durbridge.
We watch as Titus Andronicus — an aged, noble Roman general played powerfully by Sophie Newby — faces the full, terrible wrath of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, after he kills her son. Kimmi Tonkin captures Tamora’s fury and desire for revenge in all its complexity: her cruelty, her willingness to punish those around Titus for his sins, but also her moments of compassion and mourning.
Zahara Jithoo’s Aaron provides a similarly delicate balance between outright evil and pathos. At once gleeful in playing the architect of chaos, and moving when it comes to protecting his and Tamora’s child.
Daniel Pritchard lends Roman Emperor Saturninus a convincing mania, oscillating between drunk-on-power gloating and jealous, mean-spirited jabs. Mary Franklin as Marcia provides an anchor point throughout the play, providing a rare grain of morality as the carnage progresses.
Ruby Zupp portrays Lavinia movingly, the character’s pain rendered tragically, especially after her mutilation. I was curious as to why the adaptation makes Lavinia such a reluctant participant in Titus’ murder of her assailant — not an element of the source material. I would have liked Lavinia to get a moment of vengeance like so many of the other characters, and her total disempowerment felt unnecessary.
On the theme of vengeance, a high point of the play is the penultimate scene, in which the characters’ various revenge plots come to a head. It’s a frenzy of violence, rendered in all its gross, gory glory. You can see the audience wanting to look away, but not quite being able to.
Don’t go into The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus expecting a peaceful or palatable experience — the source material makes that unthinkable. But if you want to watch student performers tackle an undeniably challenging and confronting play with aplomb, you’d be well-advised to buy a ticket.