As opening night of his mainstage debut draws near, Dan Bain reflects on his process for directing Shakespeare's most brutal tale, Titus Andronicus.
How would you describe the story of Titus Andronicus?
Imagine it like when you put all your dominos in a line. In the first scene, Titus Andronicus returns to Rome. The rulers of Rome are fighting over who will rule it. He brings back this element of chaos and he introduces that into the world. That’s setting up all the dominos. Then everything backfires and through the rest of the play the dominos fall over.
Why did you want to direct Titus Andronicus?
It is a celebration of excess. With a piece like Titus you need to make very considered choices around where you’ll set the tone dial - too far and it’s irredeemably ridiculous, not enough and it’s timid and ignores the source material. It’s also an opportunity to world build. These and the chance to work with a large professional cast are all unusual parameters and opportunities that haven’t ever presented themselves to me. The chance to play and experiment with them are irresistible.
What is your vision for this production?
My overarching vision for Titus is about honouring the text and what the story is. That means not shying away from the story Shakespeare wrote or trying to make it into something more sanitised, because it’s quite horrific. It was written for a time when the alternative entertainment was bear baiting, public executions or dog fighting, so it’s kind of the theatre equivalent of that. At the same time, I want to make it clear and understandable to a modern contemporary audience as possible. I want it to be for the Shakespeare fans but also to appeal to an audience who aren’t perhaps super Shakespeare savvy. If you’re a fan of the medieval hyper-violence that seems popular in today’s media landscape you could come to this, you’d be into it and you’d be able to follow it all the way through.
We’ll be doing that a couple of different ways. We’ve cut it down a bit. Anything that’s not essential has been removed. A lot of the Shakespearean language is based around evoking stuff from a theatre that didn’t have props or set, but we’re not in that position so we can show something instead of talking about what it is. The trick is simplifying and clarifying without losing the richness of the text and the verse and hoping you’ve struck a good balance. I really want it to be the answer to the argument that Shakespeare is boring. It should not be boring. It should be understandable all the way through and it should be exciting and a bit gruesome and with some funny bits.
Why is this play important? Why is it relevant?
As far as Shakespearean plays go, it’s not perfect. There are things about it that make you say, ‘it’s not actually great’ and it’s like exploitation cinema. I’m convinced a lot of it is about a writer who discovered he could cut a trapdoor in the stage and was testing the limits on what tricks can he do with a trap door. Truly, it happens over and over again. He just keeps using the same mechanical trick and it’s like it was the first time he thought about cutting a hole in the stage.
I think it’s really easy to say, oh yeah Shakespeare - Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet – these exquisite plays that are so revelatory – look at this guy revealing and peeling away humanity, exposing to us the universal foibles of existence. It’s quite nice to then be able to say, and here’s this play he wrote where everybody got murdered. It’s really humanising and it makes you realise, for me anyway, that it’s the work of a man, it’s the work of a craftsman and it’s the work of someone trying to write a commercial hit. He’s going, ‘you know what people love? Bear fighting and when the dog bites the other dog’s ear off. I wonder if, when I write my theatre show, what if I just did lots of chopping?’ I like that about it. I’m not sure if that makes it important but it makes it human.
In terms of its relevance to now, there is always something happening in the world to be outraged at. I can’t believe you’re allowed to swear on television, or that you can have naked bodies in an art gallery or that comic books are allowed to have fighting in them – these moral outrages that accompany art in general and the feeling that today’s society is debauched makes this play relevant. We live in this kind of modern day Sodomon Gomorrah where everything is hideous and violent and then you look at Titus Andronicus and see this play was written in the 1500s and it’s hideous. It’s hyper-violent and this was their society, so what do we in our modern society have on that? I think there’s something there in that we’re no better or worse in terms of media and art, damaging the children or polluting the cultural mind.
What excites you about directing Titus Andronicus most?
I guess the scale. The fact that I’m worried about it. I think that’s exciting because I’ve got to a place in my directing where the projects I’ve been working on recently I have felt pretty comfortable. I feel uncomfortable about this so I’m out of my zone which means I’ll learn some things. I’m excited about that. It’s unusual to get a cast this big in the professional capacity for something that isn’t a musical. It’s unique to musicals and Shakespeare so that’s cool, and I’m really excited with what’s happened up until this point with how the pre-production elements are falling into place so if we can keep riding that wave I’m very excited to see what comes out the other end.
Why this cast?
I constructed this cast around Owen Black. As soon as I was offered this project I wanted to work with Owen as Titus and that shapes the casting considerably. Titus is old in the text, so if someone who is Owen’s age is old then what does that mean about the world that the play has to sit in? That makes it quite a young cast for where Shakespeare plays generally sit. For someone who is mid-40s to be an old man, those who are younger need to be around mid-20s. I think that says something about the world the play is in.
With that knowledge, I then had to look at performers who could fit that world. Who could be Owen’s children? Who could be Owen’s brother and who are people who would provide a formidable kind of adversaries to him. I’m really happy with the cast. There’s a great range of people in it and one of my goals was to get skilled actors and give them the opportunity to do things that aren’t their considered playing range.
I’ve got Cameron Douglas as one of the biggest villains in the piece, which I think will be really exciting as he’s such an easy choice as the heroic, nice character. It’s great to have the opportunity to have him as petulant and irrational and villainous. For some roles I’ve disregarded gender – I don’t think it makes a difference really. There’s some roles in the piece that are distinctly male or female but there are other roles where I’ve wondered ‘why is this a default male’? Kathleen Burns, for example, is playing the role of Titus’ eldest son.
My other big driving point was that I wanted a cast that could run. We need to be able to run around if it’s necessary. Aspects of the show, whether it be props or set or the actors themselves, need to be able to move with speed and nimbleness and so everyone needs to be fit.
Miriam Qualls who began in The Court Youth Company is in the role of Lavinia. It’s the first time we’ve had a performer leap from the Youth Company to a mainstage production so that’s very exciting. I first saw her work in the Sheila Winn Shakespeare Festival and was really impressed with her then, so she auditioned for Titus and won the role. It was a curious audition process asking her to make noises like her tongue has been torn out! I’ve also got Eilish as Tamora, my villainous lady, which will be great. A lot of the main tension is between Titus and Tamora. I think they’ll be good at butting heads and matching each other.
Why did you decide to disregard gender?
There are so many men in the original script. I cut characters and even then, it’s still overloaded with men. There’s only three women in Shakespeare’s script! The thing about building a unique world is that maybe the eldest son, or your first born, just always assumes that position – they’re your eldest son regardless of gender. When you say it’s set in Ancient Rome you have to play by the rules of Ancient Rome, or if Titus Andronicus is set in a corporate building you have to play by the rules of a corporate building. But when you go, this is Titus Andronicus set in the world of Titus Andronicus then you can just define the rules of that world based on what happens in that play, as long as everything makes sense and rhymes with other elements. I think it does. I had a highly skilled actor that was available but was left looking at the script thinking, I don’t have a part that’s worth your time, so I thought…. Why not? Why does it matter? It’s not like the character gets married to someone, or falls in love or gives birth or gets someone pregnant. There’s nothing that requires you to be specifically male or female.
What do the audience need to know about the world of Titus Andronicus to fully engage with the world of the play and how do you communicate that?
It is actually quite simple, which is another thing I like about this play. Some Shakespeare plays you have to be right on the ball with the characters and plot. Things can get quite tortuous. This one is quite straightforward. I think you need to know that it doesn’t end well for…. kind of anyone. It’s a big old mess. My job is making sure the storytelling is as clear as it possibly can be, and that along with the way the play has been written lets you in step by step. I would hate it if you had to do homework before you came to the show to understand it. You shouldn’t have to because the play does its job and everything is telling the story – the light, sound, costumes, set as well as the acting. I just hate the idea of people going ‘wait, what’s happening?’ – so I don’t want that. It’s pretty straightforward.
What are your thoughts about set and costume?
I’m so excited about the set and costumes. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted it to look like and I gave those briefs to my costume and set designers. Tina’s costumes just look fantastic and Chris’ set is simple but evocative. Everything that is designed is about pulling out the theme, character and storytelling via the character’s costume or pieces of set and showing the arc of the play, which is order descending into chaos or civilisation descending into barbarism. We’re trying to visually evoke those themes subtly and aggressively. Nothing is on stage without lending to the storytelling, whether that’s through literally furthering the story as a piece of plot mechanic, emphasising an aspect of a character or that sort of thing. We did a lot of thinking about it. I hope that shows!
There are moments in the play where there’s a lot going on. How will the audience know what to focus on?
The job of the director is telling the audience where to look. You learn this as a clown. A huge amount of my background is clowning. A fairly easy way of knowing where to look is to look at the person who’s talking. A lot of my experience was taking away the verbal aspect so it becomes about what the picture looks like - what is drawing our attention, where are the characters looking, what is the lighting and highlighting. That’s a lot of what my job is, saying the audience needs to look here now so how do I make sure that’s where they’re looking? The inverse of that is knowing there are points that the audience can’t see this and they shouldn’t see, so how do I engineer it so that they are not looking at that? I was fortunate to spend a fair amount of my youth travelling with magicians so spent a lot of time talking about these things. That knowledge is an important tool in my toolkit for this kind of work.
Who will like this production?
I think if you like Game of Thrones you’ll like it. If you like your theatre visceral you’ll like it. If you come to the theatre to feel something you will like it. It’s dramatic. Things will happen. It’ll be exciting though it may not be for everyone.
What are the keywords you’d use to describe it?
Bloody, vicious, brittle, degenerative, beautiful and silly.
How would you like the audience to feel when watching this production?
The show should feel like a roller-coaster. Very fast moving, occasionally sickening but ultimately thrilling.