Cannibalism. Rape. Mutilation. Not things you'd normally associate with Shakespeare but this is what led the Reduced Shakespeare Company to call his 'Quentin Tarantino phase'.
Critics have long debated whether Titus Andronicus, a lesser-known tragedy reinterpreted for the 2008 Hong Kong Arts Festival by award-winning director Tang Shu-Wing, was composed by the Bard owing to its extraordinary level of gore and violence. Having long been neglected by audiences, it has only recently begun to raise public interest again.
Set in late-imperial Rome, Titus returns from 10 years of war, having captured Tamora, queen of the Goths, and her sons as prisoners. Ignoring Tamora's pleas to spare her eldest son, Titus is then locked in a cycle of revenge, which peaks when his own sons are killed, and his daughter Lavinia brutally raped by Tamora's surviving sons. Indeed, revenge is a central theme fuelling and destroying all the main characters. but ultimately makes them equal.
There will be four shows on February 29 to March 3 at Kwai Tsing theatre, performed in Cantonese with English subtitles.
'Titus Andronicus is an intellectual but passionate work that I wanted to realise for the past 10 years,' he said.
'Shakespeare is uniquely powerful in narrative, creating characters, script and imagery. Although most of us are not used to this theme, there is an artistic creation that the audience should be exposed to so they can understand that the past has a history. It will also help them reflect on contemporary life.'
Asked how he intends to portray the bloodiness, Tang suggests that it won't be too graphic but will focus on suggestion instead. For example, the rape scene with Lavinia and Tamora's two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, happens off stage with the audience having to imagine the rest. 'It's a question of imagery and there's no need to be literal, but I do want [people] to think after seeing the play.'
Titus is also another chance for Tang to display his interest in the minimalist approach that can be traced back to his 2006 production of Hamlet. Using the human body as the main vehicle of expression he draws his influences from Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski and the idea of 'poor theatre', whereby the main concern was the actor's relationship with the audience, thus stripping away all that was unnecessary.
'This is different from my previous work in that I've concentrated on simplicity and acting through the body. The essence of theatre is what happens between the actor and the spectator - everything else is secondary - so I've removed all the optional extras such as music and special effects. Even so it can be difficult to find the right impulse and express it in an organic way and capture the spirit of minimalism.'
Having previously acted in past works, such as the opening film at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival From The Queen to the Chief Executive, Tang this time chose to stay in the director's chair to retain overall control.
'Theatre as an art form should be able to reveal itself and the passion can be expressed far more powerfully if I'm directing rather than exercising it,' he said.
Titus was not without its challenges although Tang was not discouraged. 'With Shakespeare it's only later on you realise why things are performed or said in a certain way. But I still think he was a genius and producing one drama is not enough - I'd definitely like to do more.'