It’s a Bloody Paper Stage: On Sitting Through “Titus Andronicus” (Yan Jenny Chen)

Reading and watching Shakespeare, I’d always managed to skirt around Titus one way or the other, probably due to the infamous death counts and the even more infamous ways in which they come about. Wikipedia knows all about it. All this dread amassed over years accounted for my sudden prick of squeamishness as I waited for Spring Term 2015’s first Paper Stage meeting to commence – we’ve certainly had bloodbaths before (The Massacre at Paris; Arden of Faversham; Sejanus His Fall – all had their fair share, yum), but none so legendary that I cringed a little at the thought of even touching the page. The slaughter was doomed to come, however, and we sat around in a circle in the Peter Brown Room, just as always, and began.

A few pages into the reading and wading steadily into more bloody waters, we already had an interesting variety of reactions: sucked-in breaths, raised eyebrows, indignant mutters, teeth-gnashing, and the occasional stifled giggle, slightly uneasy, which was to grow into full-scale laughter as we ploughed our way through the play. One of the first things that struck me was brought out soon after the grisly demise of Alarbus:

Lucius. See, lord and father, how we have performed

Our Roman rites! Alarbus’ limbs are lopped,

And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,

Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky. (Act I, Scene I)

The stage directions (‘Enter the sons of Andronicus again, with their swords bloody’), read out so casually, grated on my ear, yet at the same moment, I realized how differently that line would have been had I been reading the play ‘alone in my room’, as Harry had said. By myself, I would probably have skimmed over it, gotten an idea of how the character died, and moved on (a bit quickly, I admit). Now, in a room and surrounded by readers all too eager to act out their parts with gusto, every line and every word was enunciated, and the sheer time it took me to sit through every bloody detail gave me a strange sense of relish which would by no means have become apparent had I been on my own. Resentment, venom, craftiness; anguish, bewilderment, and, in the final scene where us readers watch Titus execute his revenge (in the most literal way imaginable), a lethal, numb calm. All these emotions and more besides were brought out in the full, as was black comedy abundant. Wonderfully agile in their pauses, links, and reactions, many of my fellow ‘readactors’ were most adept at eliminating awkward pauses or halting waits; they did not leave their lines loosely dangling in the air, but rather wielded them as one would rapiers, matching one another stride for stride and strike for strike. Between all of us, I am proud to say, we made the written word stand up on the page. Paper stage, indeed.

Our full-scale laughter was as much caused by each other’s sidesplitting reactions (coming just about every other line) as by Shakespeare’s innate talent to stuff the iambic pentameter chock-full of double entendres and innuendo. Even in the most horror-inducing sequences, puns typical of the man wormed their way in, replacing pent-up heaviness and discomfort with much-needed relief, yet a relief that was uneasy, too. Consider, for instance, this infamous exchange between Aaron and Tamora the Goth Queen’s sons:

  Demetrius. Villain, what hast thou done?

Aaron. That which thou canst not undo.

Chiron. Thou hast undone our mother.

Aaron. Villain, I have done thy mother. (Act IV, Scene II)

You need to read a play that can pull a joke like that, seriously.

(Audio version available at:, and no, this is not an ad.)

Besides verbal acting, the Paper Stage is equally a not-to-be-missed chance for any avid reader as a play-reading series: even as we are testing the words against our tongue and flavouring them with what action we can provide from our seated positions, essentially it is also a group reading session. For me at least, who checks her phone for messages far more often than is healthy, the Paper Stage offers me a chance to settle down, read an entire piece through (except when we halt halfway through and run joyously outside the table ‘for top-ups’, i.e. chat about the play and grab new handfuls of chips and popcorn courtesy of Harry – verbal murder can be awfully spending), and feel my attention span stretch like taffy. Surprising, really, to think that you can read a play out loud in roughly two hours, but what with the possibility of straying off when you’re alone, silent reading may actually take longer, thereby making the task seem more daunting. With the Paper Stage, reading is more like an activity you go through together with friends, a play you stage, and by the time we get to the end, you’d be puzzled at where the time went – who’d even think of dropping off mid-reading? Simultaneously employing the eye and ear, too, means that a demand is being made on your reading speed, and if you don’t want to miss any of the action, you simply have to trot along, though it would be a good idea, especially for students, to jot down the lines that prove more of a mouthful, to go over them again afterwards.

The ‘reading’ aspect brings itself out as well, in how rather than predominantly poring over your own lines and cues, as might be the case in the beginning stages of rehearsing a staged version, you get to see the entire play in perspective as you read it line by line. The reading itself is casual, cosy and fun, but you have to stay alert and not miss your line – harder if you’re assigned multiple roles and even end up ‘talking to yourself’. What all this ultimately means is that if you want to get the most out of it, stay tuned the whole way through. What you’d want is to get into the atmosphere of the play, to figure out the relationship between the characters or untangle the plot-line, if you are unfamiliar with the work, or to taste the language in more detail if you are, and to marvel anew at the sheer wit of puns and at unexpected punchlines, made all the more effective because they are being read with all due bravura at the same moment the printed word is being taken in by the eye. That, in a (lengthy) sentence, is what the Paper Stage has given me, and I’m sure you’ll find it true of you too.

And finally, if you were wondering about the final death counts in Titus, and aren’t afraid of spoilers, here’s the summary of what we’re left with in the end (or better yet, just read the play (out loud)). Apart from how (just about) everybody dies, on one particularly gripping page, we had three lines bracketed by two deaths, and one inserted in between. Now there’s a bit of juiciness you wouldn’t want to miss, oh-so-tender-and-delicious. Happy Bloodbath!

(P.S. Of course what one can see once one sees past the bloodshed is worth considering too. But that’ll have to be another story.)


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