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Cupcakes, teddies and revenge

Tue 28 May 2013 In: Performance View at Wayback View at NDHA

Shakespeare is turned on his head in the teddy bear-laced version coming to Auckland this week. Titus juxtaposes a fresh, fast-paced take on the vicious tragedy with the Elizabethan throwback of an all-male cast. Teddy fur flying, cupcakes with sparklers, boys kissing boys dressed as girls - director Benjamin Henson tells us more! Shakespeare’s original Titus Andronicus is about three and half hours long and is graphically violent. It centres on Titus, a general in the Roman army, who is engaged in a cycle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Under director Benjamin Henson, Titus has been slimmed down to 90 minutes and modernised, for a run at Auckland’s Q Theatre which begins on Wednesday. “This is not crusty old Shakespeare in the least. This is trying to get people to see how Shakespeare can still be vibrant and really current,” Henson promises. The cast consists of seven male actors; Paul Lewis, Cole Jenkins, James Roque, Eli Matthewson, Jason Hodzelmans, Jason Wu and David Sutherland. “They whip around the stage and chop and change characters and keep everything moving really vibrantly,” Henson says. “They are exhausted by the end of it … and the stage at the end of the show is a complete mess. By the time they’ve bled all over it and smashed each other’s possessions up. It looks like a bomb site by the end of the piece.” The props are not traditional. Oil is used as blood. Cupcakes with sparklers are used instead of pie (for the famous scene where the two villains are baked and served to their own mother). You will see a shopping trolley on stage. Teddy bears are used to represent some of the characters, which Henson says reflects the angle that revenge is a childish pursuit. But there is nothing cuddly about it - a teddy bear gets beheaded. Yet it’s not twee, as the play progresses and gets more intense, the game falls away and things become real. Titus fell out of favour until the World Wars, Henson explains, because there was disbelief that humans could carry out such evil acts. He wanted to bring it to the stage because it’s done so rarely, but has a delicious sense of being so sick and so beautiful. “It really does walk the tightrope of farce and tragedy. It talks the piss out of itself. By the time Titus has had his hands cut off, his two sons beheaded, his daughter mutilated and he murders her rapists and put him in a pie, we have him dressed up in a 1950s diner outfit and setting up a restaurant for Tamora to heat her own children in, it’s got that really devilish, sick accent to it,” he says. “We were really conscious about being an all-male cast and that we didn’t want violence to come across as indulgent or superfluous. So we really, really fought to find some beauty in the acts of revenge. “And Eli Matthewson who plays Lavinia who is the poor girl who is raped and has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, we really truly needed to honour that character despite it being a boy playing her.” Henson believes Matthewson, who is also a Billy T-nominated comedian, is able to break the audience’s heart in his gender-bending role. The director believes comedians make fantastic actors, because they are so tuned to the audience. “We represent his hands being cut off and his tongue being cut out by binding his fists and masking taping his mouth and the blood in our piece is represented by oil, so he’s covered in black slick oil. And by the time you see him in that state it breaks your heart. He’s very talented that guy.” Henson also praises another cross-dressing actor, Cole Jenkins, who plays Tamora, which Henson says is one of Shakespeare’s toughest female roles. “He just manages to play her like a flute.” And while it is a tragedy, it has come to the stage thanks to a romance. Henson met his partner Stuart in London. “We were in London for two and a half years together before Stuart landed a job here in New Zealand. And I followed him. I’ve never looked back.” Benjamin Henson sporting his fabulous moustache He has been so busy since he arrived that he realised he should have a brand, so he has started his own company, Fractious Tash, which if you didn’t guess is a tribute to his moustache. Like many modern creatives, Fractious Tash is turning to its supporters for crowd-funding help, and is running a Boosted campaign to help pay for Titus’ rehearsal and production costs, lighting designer, stage manager and lighting operators – you can help here! Henson loves working in New Zealand’s theatre scene, which he says is generous, and people help each other. “In London there’s a lot more going on obviously, but there’s also a lot more cloak and dagger and people feel very threatened about other people’s success. In New Zealand if a production is going on at The Basement or at Q and it goes off, I just feel so much pride, because I feel like I’m part of a an artist’s community that is generating strong work. And because the scene is so small you’ve really got no choice but to help each other and collaborate with each other.” As for gay talent, Henson says there is plenty, citing young playwright Sam Brooks whose work Queen was just on stage at The Basement with a majority gay cast. “And the thing I love about Titus is that we’ve got a mixed sexuality cast, but the boys are so gracious which each other it doesn’t matter. We’ve got straight boys who have to kiss gay boys because they’re playing women. They’re so tactile which each other. It really wasn’t an issue ever.” Henson hopes people walk away from the play thinking Shakespeare is not dead, but can be completely vibrant and current, and should be part of the cultural make-up of the theatre scene. “And I’m really, really hoping that they have a fantastic time, because the whole show is a really satisfying roller coaster. You couldn’t get a better thriller.”  Jacqui Stanford - 28th May 2013    

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Tuesday, 28th May 2013 - 9:38am

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