Let’s get this out of the way first: the aptly-named Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s all-female Titus Andronicus has inevitably come up against accusations of gimmickry. Like the Donmar’s Julius Caesar last year, discussion around the production tends to focus on the cross-casting – until, that is, people have actually seen it. After just a few minutes in, it’s evident that the total femaleness of this riff on Shakespeare’s first tragedy not only works wonderfully, but is totally integral to its conception. It’s a slick and farcically funny production that exudes self-aware theatricality and, of course, buckets of blood.
With the house lights still up, those braving the front row are given a ‘gentle splatter-warning’ by the laughing, off-duty actors. This is no empty threat – the notoriously grizzly plot involves so many deaths that it’s simpler to list the characters still living once the play is out, and here the company trades in graphic realism for an ingeniously simple trick: paint. Huge tubs of the red stuff are chucked on the walls, the floor and the cast, as paintbrushes become daggers and rollers swords. It’s a visually striking and comically ludicrous device that acknowledges the play’s excesses with a cut-out tongue firmly in cheek.
The set, made up of huge (wipe-clean) white canvases wheeled around to create different spaces, couples with the cast’s uniform of white shirt and braces to create a gloriously brutal kind of graphic novel, Clockwork Orange aesthetic. There’s some playful use of lighting and silhouettes, as well as a live soundtrack that manages to marry stripped-back style with pathos and humour.
A strong ensemble of six gamely tackle the play’s considerable cast of characters, with a fearsome Henri Merriam in the title role and an impressive multi-roling from the rest. Generally, an effective balance is struck between eye-rolling irony and palpable tension, as the performers skilfully play around with the material without veering into total parody. Vivienne Acheampong deserves special mention as Tamora’s lover Aaron, for her off the cuff comedy and ability to earn our sympathies even within such a stylised format.
The performativity of this production – we see the actors switch roles onstage, and in the visible wings they sip water and pass props around – makes the all-female casting completely appropriate. The company wittily take down masculine posturing and testosterone-fuelled violence, at once ridiculing and revelling in the absurdity of Shakespeare’s first foray into savage tragedy.