From March 2–10, Shakespeare’s most gruesome tragedy will play out on the Hart House stage. Set in Rome, Titus Andronicus deals with themes of sexual violence, justice, and, ultimately, revenge.
The Varsity sat down with James Wallis, the director of the production, to discuss diversity in theatre, the relevance of Shakespeare in 2018, and the crux of what makes an effective director.
The Varsity: Do you have a set structure or idea that you tend to implement when directing a Shakespeare play?
James Wallis: I’m interested in how the text tells the story, characters, and the situation. You get that through three things: clarity, intention, and pace. If you have clarity, you will know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. To me, acting is action — so you have to have intention. What am I doing to the other person on the stage? What are they doing to me? How does that affect the situation?
And then, because Shakespeare’s plays are mostly written in verse or in stilted prose, there is a rhythm to them, and you have to keep the pace moving forward. Shakespeare’s plays always move forward; they never go back. So those three things — clarity, intention, and pace — are my number one priorities whenever I do any work of Shakespeare or his contemporaries.
TV: Why Titus Andronicus?
JW: I’m always investigating Shakespeare. As I always say comically, it’s gone beyond obsession at this point! To me, it’s the fact that these plays exist in a realm of questions, which is what I find so fascinating. That is what I am constantly after — being able to ask those questions through my work. So, with Titus Andronicus: what does violence do to us? Why does it horrify and entice us? What do we do when we want to revenge ourselves on a person? Should we? Do we have the right to?
TV: Titus Andronicus is another tragedy about revenge, but it is slightly more removed from reality. How have you been able to link this back to our current political climate?
JW: I think at times, taking relevant topics and putting them right in front of an audience can almost destroy the ambiguity of the piece. So my goal is always to allow the play to ask questions and not to give answers. With that being said, Titus Andronicus is a play that is about revenge, about a society at its peril, and a society at the height of its former history that is at a breaking point.
It’s about the violation of a young woman and how that affects the people around her — the play is about the consummation of taking vengeance on a person. My interest was, ‘How do we view revenge now? Is vengeance something we believe in? Is it an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?’ I don’t know. I think it’s different for everybody. In a society that is as divided as ours, I think vengeance acts as a catalyst for how that divide is brought forward.
TV: Diversity in theatre is so important, especially in Shakespeare — were you conscious of this when casting?
JW: My goal is always to bring more diversity into Shakespeare from the ground up, especially with the actors. There are a lot of great actors out there. [Titus Andronicus] was relatively successful. This play has a racial dynamic — it is about an individual who is an outsider, not only because of his race, but also because he is an individualist, an atheist, and a person who believes he can take this opportunity and roll with it.
He is the smartest person in the play, and he knows how to manipulate information and power over people. It’s an interesting dynamic that sits in the play, this idea of the outsider because of their race and ideas. How do you cast within that? You cast them on what they look like, but you are also bringing in more diversity because that is what you should be doing.
I try to do that, I don’t know if I succeed. To be frank, colour consciousness is something we have to be very aware of — how the idea of casting is affected by who the person identifies as, not just racially, but also in terms of gender and sexuality. We have to be very conscious and considerate of what people are trying to bring humanly to themselves, because it is effective and it is telling when it’s on stage and people are watching.
TV: Shakespeare’s been done to death, but I noticed that there are carnival elements to the production — what else is different about your version of Titus Andronicus compared to others?
JW: The play lives in the grotesque, it lives in the horrible and the comic, and I really wanted to use this idea of a broken being — something that reflects back but is also distorted. One thing that came to my head was a hall of mirrors at a carnival. The carnival aspect is a thematic and design idea that brings the play closer to that comic and horrible place. Titus Andronicus is like a distorted satire of the revenge trope. The tragedy is taking the genre of horror and subverting it a little bit.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.