Perhaps the most unusual production of the season, Timon/Titus takes the key themes of Shakespeare’s classical tragedies Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus and propels them into a contemporary spotlight. Focusing on the highly relevant themes of debt, family, tradition, race, gender, cultural exploitation, and of course revenge, the play condenses the essence of Shakespearean tragedy into one bizarrely original story. Unashamedly perplexed by this week’s theatrical offerings, Impact spoke to director Ben Standish, producer Dilly Hoyt and actors Cameron Brett (William) and Georgie Brand (Andrea-Penelope) to try and figure out just what is going on.
It was Standish who first brought the play to the attention of the New Theatre. Having discovered the original devised piece on his year abroad in France, the director immediately realised that he had spotted something with a great deal of potential.
“The original script was by a group of graduates from a drama school in Bordeaux. They wrote this piece because they wanted to do a play about debt and capitalism, but at the same time they wanted to make it friendly and approachable.”
“The fact that it has never been performed in England is amazing”
The play’s themes of questionable economics, gender traditionalism and cultural subjugation all stood out to Standish as transferable from French to English: “The original was based around political events in France, where they had recently experienced the uncertainty of the Macron-Le Pen election. They’ve also got a similar history of colonialism, which can likewise be applied to the UK.”
For producer Hoyt, the transfer to a British context was thematically seamless. “A lot of the themes are things that many of us explore daily. I am very much a feminist and very much an environmentalist, so I think this play is the perfect challenge for me.”
However, the fact that the play has only been performed on a small scale in France (and was translated into English by Standish himself) means that the team have an almost unprecedented amount of creative flexibility. “As it’s only just been translated,” Hoyt explains, “we can constantly adapt and change it. The play evolves according to the cast and what they feel passionate about.”
“This was different to anything I’d heard about or seen before,” admits Brand, “the fact that it has never been performed in England is amazing in itself.”
“I’ve found my character very interesting to play because I fundamentally disagree with so many of his views”
But in a play with so many complex layers to the performance, the process of getting into character has not been a simple one. As Brand explains: “We were never told what our characters should do or what should take place. It’s a much more collaborative process.”
“Even in the last stages we’ve learnt a lot more about our characters. They have layers upon layers of depth.”
For Brett, playing the seemingly controversially-opinionated William, the script has presented a uniquely political challenge, quite unlike any previous piece of drama; “I’ve found my character very interesting to play because I fundamentally disagree with so many of his views.”
“He’s a real colonialist. But because of that I’ve been able to consider a world beyond my personal views and can use this to balance out the character. Hopefully I can present some of his opinions as more reasonable than if I had portrayed him as a hard-line figure.”
“The audience should be able to see something of a positive side to a character who, at a university, is not likely to be very popular.”
For Standish, this emphasis on the university location is key to the play’s message. “People will come and they will see students putting on a piece of Shakespeare. The dressing room is on stage. We see them take their costumes, build the stage and make the show happen.”
This slightly unusual feature only hints at the disjointed structure of the performance. “We don’t go into the show straight away,” Standish continues, trying his best not to give too much away. “We go via several other things before the actual Shakespearean tragedy takes hold.”
“I want people to gain a new appreciation for Shakespeare”
“I have certainly never seen a play with this mixture of form and content with the added layer of Shakespeare on top.”
Yet, for all the dramatic layers and contemporary themes, it is the Shakespearean aspect that remains the play’s binding feature. “I want people to gain a new appreciation for Shakespeare,” explains Brand, herself an English Lit student. “The themes can be transferable. These concepts of debt and family and tradition will never leave us.”
“I’d like the audience to come away with a sense of excitement too,” Brett points out, “as this play will be completely different to anything they will have seen before. Yes it’s based around Shakespeare, but it’s also full of little political comments that you can pick out if you’re switched on to that kind of thing.”
For Hoyt and Standish, this production is all about energising the audience’s interest. “If they don’t already have it,” explains Hoyt, “I want the audience to come away with a critical eye. I think that people so often go through life being complacent. That isn’t how it should be.”
“Even if you leave more of a Tory than you were before,” chuckles Standish, “at least you’ll have considered the questions we raise.”
“As long as people come out and say something about the debates presented in this show, I’ll be happy.”
With a highly original script, innovative methods of performance and strikingly relevant themes, Timon/Titus is a play for our troubled times. If one thing’s for certain, it’s that people are not going to leave this quietly.
Timon/Titus is on at the Nottingham New Theatre 6th to 9th December 2017.
Play poster courtesy of the Nottingham New Theatre.
Image use license here.