One of Shakespeare's lesser-spotted works, Titus Andronicus' tale of a Roman general who returns home from war to sort out the country has often been dismissed by scholars as shock-seeking juvenalia which latched onto the then trend for such works by his older peers. Howard and Laing, however, beg to differ in a version that aims to get to the play's possibly skewered heart.
“What's regarded as the problem with the play is the violence,” Howard explains, “but that's a red herring, because, like David Greig when he was a young writer experimenting with form, Shakespeare learnt about it by doing it.”
In what sounds graphic enough to have been an inspiration for the 1990s wave of 'in-yer-face' theatre, Howard makes a parallel between Shakespeare's use of violence in Titus Andronicus with Sarah Kane's play, Blasted.
“All those people who slagged off Sarah Kane, and then realised that Blasted was about love and not violence, so Shakespeare has suffered the same indignity with Titus,” Howard says. The play is modelled on a revenge tragedy, and the only way to do it is with that much violence, but it's violence that is there for a very moral reason. We're not showing footage of Isis or anything like that. It's not that kind of show, but of course it's a play about revenge, but it's also about a father's love for his daughter.”
The roots of Howard and Laing's look at Titus Andronicus date back to when Laing went to see Howard's pared-down version of King John, another neglected Shakespeare play seen as part of Oran Mor's Classic Cuts season of truncated plays that was sired from the late David MacLennan's world-changing A Play, A Pie and A Pint phenomenon. While one of the attractions of King John was seeing current star of Outlander Sam Heughan onstage in such an up close and personal environment, in a way Titus Andronicus was the perfect play for Oran Mor, as anyone who knows its final scene will recognise.
“There's lots of imagery in the play about food,” Howard points out, “and Stewart and I started our conversation that afternoon about doing a cut-down fifty minute version Classic Cut. Then once I came to Dundee we realised that for that last scene to work you have to apply that to the whole play rather than a fifty minute version, otherwise what you end up with is an extended gag.”
By this time, Laing's company Untitled Projects had produced Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner, a show which Howard describes as “my top Scottish theatre show for the last five years, so to be working with Stewart on this was a joy. It was me who went away into a dark room and wrote it, but it was done in collaboration with Stewart, and I would credit Stewart with the single most important breakthrough, in that we always knew it would take place to a different environment, and once we realised that Rome is the restaurant, everything else fell into place.”
To this end, the production will be performed in Dundee Rep's Bonar Hall space, where the audience will be seated at tables as if in an actual restaurant, while cooking will take place in real time throughout.
Working with actors training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and with Laing's collaborator on Paul Bright, George Anton, in the title role, Howard describes his adaptation as “ninety-five per cent Shakespeare, which I've put through a filter and stripped away the fat. It's a play with twenty-seven characters, but as we're doing it with twelve actors, rather than do a lot of doubling we wanted it to be for twelve characters as well. Shakespeare wrote it for a company of actors, and there's a clown's part in there for the senior company member, which is terrible. So I know I'll be pilloried for his, but by making the play leaner I think we're making it better.”
Howard isn't alone in his outlook. In 1678, actor/director Edward Ravenscroft did an edit for performance, referring to Shakespeare's original as 'the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his works. It seems rather a heap of rubbish than a structure.'
“That always tickled me,” says Howard, “because I've always thought it's the most perfectly structured symmetrical play.”
One of the most striking features of Laing's production looks set to be the musical contribution of Keith McIvor, aka JD Twitch, one half of pioneering Glasgow club duo, Optimo, who Howard describes as “the coolest person we've ever had in the building.”
With a sound system being installed into the theatre for the occasion, McIvor's pre-programmed contribution will form the backdrop to what he describes as “a very intense party scene. It will be like a mini DJ set, I suppose, and we're trying to put things together that will help define the ebb and flow of things.”
Howard's version of the play itself could be said to be a remix of Shakespeare, just as other writers have looked to outside sources.
To complement their production of Titus Andronicus, the Rep will also be presenting a rehearsed reading of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play, The Love of the Nightingale. In her play, Wertenbaker looked to the ancient Greek myth of Philomele, which was the same story Shakespeare looked to for Titus Andronicus.
“That came into the mix quite late,” says Howard, “and was a play I was a play I wanted to do, and then I realised that it's debt to Book six of Ovid's Metamorphosis, which looked at the rape of Philomele, who turns into a nightingale, was the same as with Shakespeare's play.”
Titus Andronicus marks the end of Howard's tenure as joint artistic director of Dundee Rep, which he has run in tandem with Jemima Levick since the pair were appointed in 2012.
Before Howard departs Dundee to resume his freelance directing and teaching career, he will revive his production of Justin Young's play, In My Father's Words, for the New York-based Brits Off Broadway season in July.
“That's a lovely little goodbye thing,” Howard says. “There have been so many joys here, as well as some mind-bending challenges, and there's a lot that I've been really proud of. I especially value my partnership with Jemima. I've had some great artistic partnerships over the years, but this is the one I've treasured most, and we will work together again, don't know where, don't know when.”
In the meantime, Howard and Laing's take on Titus Andronicus looks set to stay true to the play's core while reinventing it anew.
“I think what makes Titus Andronicus a great play,” according to Howard, “is that, in its core brilliance, it says something very important about the cyclical nature of revenge tragedy. In a conventional revenge tragedy, the only way to get any movement is to break that cycle. This version of Titus Andronicus ends on a question mark on what it takes to break that cycle.”
Titus Andronicus, Dundee Rep, April 8-24.www.dundeerep.co.uk
The Herald, April 7th 2015