I watched Titus Andronicus recently with my colleagues, Lynn and Nora. I don’t hang out with Nora much, so it was interesting to talk to her. Unlike some of my colleagues, Nora actually is interested in the arts and will make her own initiative to attend shows. It’s how we met Nora anyway — through a public call for submissions by the sister organisation of the people I work for. This was her winning entry.
This would be Nora’s first ever Theatrethreesixty play. Lynn and I both have projects we’ve run with T360, been for quite a few of their shows, and know some of the people in the production. In fact, since Lynn got the tickets, I may have been watching the show on comps (complimentary tix). It’s difficult to say because we also sometimes purchase tix on behalf of each other, although she’s the only one with access to comps.
The three of us had dinner nearby, then dropped into DPAC for the show, 150 mins long.
When we left, we naturally compared notes:
- Lainie: I hated it.
- N: I liked it.
- [ pause. recalibrate. look at each other. ]
- L: …why?
- N: Did you not like it because it was violent?
- L: I have a lot of tolerance for anger, violence and sadism.
I was not expecting to completely disagree with Nora on our first theatre outing together. We eventually established that minimally, we agreed the blocking interrupted our viewing for extended times at some points and that the lighting fried our eyes (the promo did say “visually stunning”). I’m sure the lighting will look lovely on screen as picture or video, but sitting in that bright light bath was uncomfortable. I tried to get her to go mamak after to pick her brains (also, my PMS has triggered my hunger by then), but Lynn needed to get back to work.
I only have unmeaningful encounters with Titus — I don’t enjoy the text. I read Shakespeare when I was too young and unguided to enjoy some of the works. It didn’t help that I read Shakespeare because there was a severe limit to fiction sold in Ipoh outside of the “Classics” category. As an adult, I don’t think I would bother with classic Shakespeare productions at all if we didn’t keep staging it here. I don’t mind clever interpretations or twists, but it is the cleverness I enjoy, not the Shakespeare.
This was the first time I was seeing a show related to Titus, much less a full production. It was a long and heavy show, so my mind was a bit overwhelmed when I stepped out of the theatre.
To simplify: I found this production of Titus Andronicus way too cartoony and rough.
Here are some notes and thoughts that I hope hold up, given my delay in writing this nearly a month later. I am too lazy to describe the play, so if you didn’t watch it, here’s the event page (hope it helps!):
→ The play starts off really, really slow. Everyone walks around slowly, picking up clothes from the floor, putting on their skins and their characters I suppose. I damn near snoozed through this part, but was kept awake wondering why Meng Kheng’s white clothes were a pale baby pink, and whether this was a comment on his comfort in masculinity or whatever.
To be fair, I was crabby and tired when I arrived, in exactly the mood you don’t want critics to be in when they arrive at your show (although I was there to support the show, not as a critic).
→ I saw a giant foam sculpture of a head swept aside with a brush of the hand.
This is the moment that cemented the cartoon filter for me in this show. Giant props bouncing on stage.
→ Tamara is the…I want to say antihero…but in this production, her introduction is more a supervillain origin story. She rather reminded me of Ursula in Little Mermaid. Arched eyebrows, sensual glee at violence, not very regal. I could argue even Ursula was a more complex character given how slippery she was negotiating with Ariel.
For a queen with the ability to orchestrate the downfall of a rival nation, Tamara is…unexpectedly coarse. She acts like some scheming gangster from the world of Jagat. It is difficult to imagine she has followers, or even experience in a royal court. Certainly can’t imagine any of the Malaysian royal family layaning Tamara seriously. Was her empire a primitive one? Is she some warrior tribe’s queen? Were there only 100 people in her kingdom? Are the other 99 her offspring?
It was a struggle to see the loudly wailing woman throwing herself at the feet of an emperor and begging for clemency as a newly captured queen, instead of a peasant.
I think if Tamara was truly a simple villain, just the offensive slight from being dethroned and captured should be adequate to start the revenge. But we are to believe this woman is spurred by the murder of her son. However, the character doesn’t steel herself for the actions she’s about to take, she’s already the villain she needs to be. I also don’t know my Shakespeare (or anything about Titus Andronicus) well enough at all to be certain, but surely there is more depth to be found in this character? A cunning and desperate queen, using her sexuality and political experience to conquer another kingdom.
→ The fight scenes look quite legit, but has moments where it looks kinda showy and…cartoony. A neck is snapped between a pair of knees, wrists are twisted, another neck is snapped in an armlock — it’s like a scripted wrestling fight, occasionally you see moves one might hesitate to use in a real brawl unless you’re an expert/a gorilla. I kinda liked it, actually.
During the show, I found myself wishing the fight scenes had some cool swordplay. After watching Tragedi Hamlet, maybe no swords is a good thing. Much as I like Arief Hamizan in some shows, he is not suited for Laertes and looked like a twirling fairy (the mythical being, not the slur) casting a spell when he jumped and spun after Hamlet with a sword. It looked like something that belonged in Sinbad the Musical, to do Tragedi Hamlet a disservice in comparison.
→ Slick video, but I’ll let the various accents and speeches in this video clue you in on the experience overall listening to the performers live.
→ When Anrie’s character is dragged off and raped, the two sons violating her behaved like cartoon hyenas from The Lion King. David Perico Lim gave it a spirited go throughout the show, and was entertaining. He’s Obviously Acting, but in a playful way like he’s determined to put on a solo show to give you your money’s worth. I liked his enthusiasm, and ability to maintain a few noticeably different characters. However, this also cast a glaring light on the flaws of his fellow cast mate Shaun, who frequently was onstage with him.
The only time I appreciated Shaun in this show was when he played the violin in the pantomime scene, although I do wonder if the cost of the pantomime scene was that we had to have Shaun Chen in the play. First time I’m seeing him hold such a big role, but man, squinting your eyes and mouthbreathing doesn’t count as emoting, and he couldn’t hold one character, much less a few different ones.
→ I terasa secondhand awkwardness during the 2nd act’s pantomime scene — I liked the blocking, but only because Kien Lee didn’t make his appearance behind me. He was spouting a whole bunch of crazy lines while standing behind a row of audience members (audience was seated on all four sides of the stage), and I think we all noticed how awkward it was for the people with their backs to him. I mean, I spent about as much time looking at their uncomfortable expressions as I did paying attention to Kien Lee. So. Awkward.
I wonder if it was intentional — if it was, it would fit in with a lot of moments in the play that were designed to be extremely awkward in the hopes of shocking/being seen as daring, like the rape scene, or a sex scene, or a murder. Possibly the only way it could be more awkward in its chosen setting was if audience was required to participate even further beyond watching. Like a trio of queen, Aaron and hapless audience member humping on the floor.
→ Somewhere in the first act I was struggling to stay awake. A girl sitting across the theatre from me straight up fell asleep, and at one scene in the second act I heard a soft snore escape from her. And I’m easily influenced so I got groggy too.
→ Anrie played a character whose name I cannot remember. Basically, she plays the girl-in-fridge character; sweet girl who is tragically wronged to spur on the actions of male characters. I don’t care that Shakespeare came way before DC Comics, I only care that this trope is exhausting.
For the first few minutes of the play I mistakenly thought she was romantic with her brother. Seeing their romantic escapade was like watching a cat try to love a potato. Anyway, after it has been established that she is a sweet lovely and beloved character, she is dragged off, raped and her hands and tongue cut off (worst fake hand prop ever).
It’s pretty difficult to take her tragedy seriously, because the treatment of it was so campy. She basically made UuuuuUUUuuu sounds throughout, like a child pretending to be a ghost. The production revelled in the “injured animal/tongueless fury” noises she made, and I’m pretty sure it even got incorporated into the sound design.
If the cries were suppose to leave a lingering sense of horror in the show, it didn’t work. I really do wonder if a female director would have made a similar decision to dive with so much distasteful glee at exploiting the violence against a female character. I get that violence is integral to Titus, but a lot of the violence in this show was a campy, gleeful ‘ha-ha! this will discomfort you!’ fist-pumping. It never really does land a blow. Unless you’re an actor in the show.
→ The emperor. The casting for this show is rabak, but not in the “we did blind casting and took the best people for each role” kind of way. More like the “this is so visually interesting because the cast doesn’t fit!”
The actor, Tika, who has done some more interesting work in the past, ended up as our grand emperor who is wound around Tamara’s crafty finger. Tika struggles to portray a powerful, prideful man, shouting her way through the production in an effort to display power and authority. She doesn’t actually get commanding. She shouts a lot, takes big steps, puffs up bigger than she is — but she’s still not a king. It is difficult to imagine who would follow this king. Between Tika and Tamara, it looks more like a couple in a mental asylum playing pretend. I might have preferred it if Tika and the Tamara actor switch roles, I think Tika would have been able to add more subtlety and restraint to Tamara. It would also have been a more pleasing first encounter of Tika in a full-length show (that isn’t a series of vignettes stitched together).
→ Meng Kheng has grown as an actor. It’s not super great at this show, but it’s alright. It’s certainly better than his performance at Macbeth, and he’s lost the awkwardness he had as an ensemble member years ago in Rose Rose. That’s a good thing, and not everyone grows out of it. I think he could do with more character development, but that seems like a fairly uniform feedback for the entire cast. I can’t remember his character’s name.
→ The set made no sense until the last few minutes of the show. I spent a long time wondering why I was looking at this ugly white plastic rectangle, until the spectacular blood bath happened. Then I figured this must be why some of the ‘white’ clothes looked slightly pink — I watched the show near the end of its run and I guess the colour clung to the clothes.
→ I liked the pie scene (a mother unknowingly eats her children!) and I wish they had played more with the scene. But I suppose too much comedy would have been at odds with the general tone of the show. I would have welcomed it though. Although by the second half, I would definitely have enjoyed any distraction.
→ I had no appreciation for the costumes, and I don’t like military figures being played by bare-footed actors. You’re wearing modern soldier clothes, put on some boots dammit.
→ Aaron. What to say about Aaron. He cuts a fine and intimidating figure onstage. But I can’t tell if he has a lisp, or if he’s just not comfortable with English. Either way, makes it quite difficult to play the character he does when there is so much struggle with the text. He can cut a menacing figure, being one of the bulkier cast members (maybe even the bulkiest?), but his speech impedes the performance. Also quite a cartoony villain. Worst onstage sex scene with Tamara, almost as bad as the hand prop or Anrie’s tongueless wailing.
→ There was a strange choice for lighting design — it definitely got in the way of the production, with actors ducking to avoid banging their heads against them (and in one case, actually swatting the lights out of the way), and awkwardly manoeuvring props brought onstage to avoid collision.
→ Kien Lee played the title character, Titus Andronicus. I’m not sure what to say. He’s not my favourite Shakespeare actor, but he keeps appearing in Shakespeare shows, and probably will keep doing so.
Credit given when due: He does waste away quite splendidly throughout the show. By the time we got to intermission, Titus looks so worn out and haggard, he resembled the end product of an extended hunger strike. It was a most magnificent wasting away (if not very General Titus-like), it looked like he was shrinking as the play went on. Maybe he was losing all that weight in water, because goddamn, he is a sweaty person.
He practically left puddles of sweat everywhere he walked, and there was so very much saliva coming out of him it was like a fountain show all by itself. He sprayed saliva with every major line or emotion, which the theatre lights caught very well. I cringed as I watched a huge glob of spit slowly fall onto Anrie’s face when he cradled her and wept. I almost want to give the spit its own place in the programme book.
For someone who appears in so many Shakespeare productions, Kien Lee’s pronunciation and enunciation are both questionable and erratic. You never know when he’ll let an extra double vowel fly, or find a fun new way to pronounce a word. Will he say “bosom” or “boo-som”? It’s anyone’s guess. In this regard, he is a most versatile man.
I don’t think it helps that I’m not a fan of local Shakespeare productions, whereas he seems quite dedicated to being a huge part of the local Shakespeare scene. And this is the year of #Shakespeare400, so if this isn’t his year to shine, I don’t know when that would be.
→ I think the rest of the cast (a guy and a girl) weren’t in roles that suited them.
I was very excited by Theatrethreesixty when it was first formed, and they do a lot of interesting projects — but the big productions are the ones that I can’t connect with. I much prefer the smaller shows they do. Titus Andronicus? Definitely not my cup of tea.
Deric of Daily Seni enjoyed and approved of the show, much more than I did. You can read his review here.