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Adena Jacobs
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Shakespeare's bloodiest play is being reimagined by this visionary director

Ben Neutze

If you’ve seen an Adena Jacobs production, you’ll remember it. There’s a good chance you found it mystifying or infuriating, but perhaps a greater chance you found it illuminating and transformative. The Melbourne-based theatre director is known for her visually spectacular, queer, dark, sometimes disturbing and frequently confronting stagings. 

Her take on The Wizard of Oz contained almost no dialogue but plenty of nudity and neon, while her Oedipus Rex started with a long, silent, claustrophobia-inducing blackout in a tiny theatre. She’s also made theatrical versions of violent ancient myths performed entirely by children. Many of her most memorable scenes seem more akin to installation or performance art than theatre.

So you might wonder what compelled her to direct her first Shakespeare production, given her penchant for pushing theatrical boundaries. Jacobs says she was given the perfect invitation from Bell Shakespeare (“to explode open the play”) and the perfect piece to work on: Shakespeare’s most violent work, Titus Andronicus, which follows a cycle of revenge between Roman general Titus and Queen of the Goths, Tamora.

“I think the reason I was interested in it, intuitively, were about the central images of the play,” Jacobs says. Those images are one of a female character with her tongue cut out and her hands cut off, and another of a mother eating her children in a pie. “They’re both very mythic images, and about a woman having the contents of her mouth removed, or her children put back into her mouth.”

Titus Andronicus in rehearsal. Photograph: Brett Boardman

Jacobs is taking this story full of horrific violence and framing each scene as an episode in a series of nightmares. Each, she says, will have its own tone and mood, created with the help of her long-time collaborator, designer Eugyeene Teh. Together, they’ve borrowed visual references from mythology, visual art and pop culture, similar to the way Shakespeare draws references from all sources.

The production will be led by women, with Titus played by Jane Montgomery Griffiths and Melita Jurisic as Tamora. “The idea of those two women as rival, duelling mothers is thrilling,” Jacobs says. 

Jacobs describes the play as being a tragedy written on the bodies of women. It’s not just that there are violent acts committed against women, but the play itself views the female body as a place of fear and danger. At one point, there’s a kind of honour killing, which in Jacobs’ version is performed by a female actor rather than a man.

“Is that different if it’s a mother or father; a man or a woman? I don’t know. But suddenly having Jane perform that action when we’ve already witnessed the violence inscribed on her body as a female body – I don’t know what it all means, but it certainly cracks things open.”

Arguably the biggest challenge for Jacobs is working with Shakespeare’s original text, which is performed mostly intact in this staging. Most of her work is devised in the room and contains little dialogue, although she recently directed a production of Strauss’s opera Salome for the English National Opera. Having an enormous amount of text to get through is a mixed blessing.

“When I’m creating my own work and devising, on some level the abyss is much greater because you have literally nothing to go on except a possible structure and some loose ideas, and really anything is possible,” she says. “When we started The Wizard of Oz, the script was like: ‘a tornado; Dorothy arrives in Oz; she meets a scarecrow’. It was one piece of paper, and you just think ‘the audience is coming either way’. So it’s terrifying. But I also know that I’m in total control of the language.”

Titus Andronicus in rehearsal. Photograph: Brett Boardman.

It’s also a significant challenge for any director who refracts ancient stories through a queer and feminist lens to grapple with a work from four centuries ago that reflects the attitudes of its period. 

“With devised work, I’m not up at night wrestling with the questions of why and how in the same way,” Jacobs says. “Dealing with classical or ancient texts, or patriarchal texts, I’m more at war with myself at all times, trying to work out how on earth to approach it.”

But while some contemporary directors choose to simply remove the most egregious acts of violence or bigotry in the works they’re tackling, it’s never been Jacobs’ style to turn away from difficult truths. Her work is always dark and discomforting, which makes her arguably the perfect director to stare down the barrel of this difficult and bloody play.

Despite all this theatrical confrontation, Jacobs in person is generous and serious, but never sullen. She’s very much the opposite of what many of us expect from auteur directors with an idiosyncratic and challenging style. So where does this need to dig into the darkness come from?

“That feels like a therapy question,” Jacobs says with a laugh. “It’s something I think about all the time. I don’t know how to answer that question. Jacqueline Rose has written this book – I’m diverting the question to someone else, obviously – this book called Women in Dark Times, talking about real life female figures who explore darkness in various ways, whether in their life, their art or their politics. She talks about, as a woman, the idea of applying darkness to darkness as a creative space. I only read that last year and was like, ‘ah, thank you!’ It felt like it explained something that I really understood.

“I often ask myself the same question: every single time I start a production I think, ‘oh God, again’. I go into this tunnel, and that’s the place I always make my work from. But there is something about applying darkness to darkness and going through it rather than trying to correct it. That helps me understand it in some way, and understand unfathomable, unspeakable things.”

Titus Andronicus is at the Sydney Opera House August 27 to September 27.

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