Ready for some onstage spooks? Seven Siblings Theatre’s got you covered this Halloween with their very first Shakespearean production, Titus Andronicus. We spoke with Director Will King about his decision to produce this seldom-staged show, the defining elements of this particular production, and the challenge of putting it all together.
Why haven’t we seen Seven Siblings take on Shakespeare until now, and what made you want to put on Titus Andronicus in particular?
We try to find things that suit our mandate, that being our use of Chekhov techniques and fantastic realism. This is my favourite Shakespearean play; it’s challenging and there’s a lot that goes into it, so I wanted to make sure that we had our system in place and that we were comfortable enough to do it. I also love the fact that it’s not put on often.
TA is a story about revenge, betrayal, murder, lust, duty and honour. The first four are considered vices while the last two are considered virtues. Will your rendition of the play challenge and/or provide any sort of commentary on these ideas?
This is a harder show to sell, since it’s horror. The stakes are high, because we want to make it a memorable thriller, so we condensed the show down to two hours in order to keep up the suspense for people in terms of tension and release, atmosphere and terror. But we’re staying true to the text, while also highlighting themes that were previously undermined, the biggest one being parenthood. We see different families that work within their own environments; the Andronicus family has an honour system whereby Titus treats his twenty-five children like soldiers, whereas Tamora has a close-knit family characterized by an incestuous, family-oriented heathenism.
What’s funny is that the play takes place in peace, and yet these families are involved in “secret assassinations plots” against each other because they have the time for it. Both Titus and Tamora are protagonists, depending on who you want to follow in the story. We understand why these people do what they do, but they’re morally ambiguous. While we don’t tell the audience what to think, we know that this play is a warning to humanity that’s saying, “don’t be like these people.” Otherwise, the world becomes apocalyptic, like how the Romans went underground and the Goths lost their literature.
Let’s talk about the puppetry. Where did the idea come from, and why do you think it suits this particular production?
We’re adding element of fantasy, a way of lifting the play that’s memorable, by beautiful imagery that turns gruesome. We’re using puppets to play with supernatural horror, and to frame the world in a way that honours the play. For example, in underground Rome, we discover deities and creatures, the puppeteers being the deities that control the creatures, which are puppets. This is a classic “hospital horror,” where the actors bleed into the beings, and in this way we see symbiotic relationships between them. This becomes corruption in an image that manifests itself. It allows for realism in opening up what actors can play truthfully.
Will the theatre space lend itself to audience immersion? How will this be executed, considering that the production emphasizes fantasy, horror and the supernatural?
There will be audience immersion to a degree; the actors will address the audience as the people of Rome. We’re going to be dropping lights low to the ground, playing with shadow and sound, but we’ll also say which theme each scene propels, what we’re fighting for. There will be lots of blood, violence and suspense that scares people.
There’s also specificity in how characters die. All the characters are unlikable, so people may be happy to see many of them die, or they will be overwhelmed. There are no heroes in this, because no one sees the world clearly, and they all have their specific faults. The Goths and Andronicuses live with different moral backgrounds.
How is the chemistry among the cast?
Everyone’s a collaborator; we let the actors give their thoughts on their characters, which in turn brings up themes that would never be brought up in real life and “kitchen sink” dramas. We gel everyone together, but it’s also helpful that everyone has their own backgrounds. Everyone works towards the common goal; everyone gets along and is always game for anything. We keep everybody on an even playing field, but we also learn from each other’s training.
What were some of the challenges in putting this show together?
One of them was finding the relationship between humans and puppets. It was important to understand what kinds of relationships to have with characters; some may be good to have as allies in war, but not to have over for tea!
The other is presenting the suspense in a way that will get the audience to wonder what will happen before it happens. Imagination is a powerful thing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.