This past week I saw The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, Theatre Network’s latest show. This is a bouffon reimagining of Shakespeare Titus Andronicus, written by Canadian award-winning playwright Colleen Murphy. I interviewed Colleen for the show last week.
I really wanted to like this play more than I did, especially after my fascinating and insightful conversation with Colleen. That sounds really harsh, but please keep in mind that this is just one woman’s opinion and I have a complicated relationship with clowning and clowns. I am pretty tepid about the genre. It’s not my favourite, quite frankly.
The concept is that there’s this group – the Society for the Destitute – who are a group of bouffon characters and they are putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Historically, bouffons originated in France and were the dregs of society: the outcasts, the oppressed, the marginalized; often they had physical differences and malformations. They would entertain the nobility once a year, often making fun of themselves but also the audience.
Visually, Titus Bouffonius was just wild. The characters have this hobo-clown aesthetic that’s very true to the nature of bouffon, complete with some physical malformations like boils and tumorous lumps and bulges. The performers owned their characters perfectly and were hilarious in a very self-effacing way.
But I also found Titus Bouffonius exploitative. Collen Murphy’s script is very intelligent and you could argue that these characters do try to take back their power in their own way. It’s subversive in that respect, but I found it difficult to watch. Maybe it was satire, but it felt gratuitous. I wasn’t able to find the schadenfreude in these characters’ plights: having a deadbeat mother and subsequent abandonment issues, being an ex-con, having their children taken away by Children’s Services. It just felt sad.
Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s gory, murder-and-rape-filled revenge play so while it’s a perfect fit for bouffon treatment, it’s also not exactly fun to sit through even when it’s done as a campy horror. While I could sympathize with the characters at some points – and the performers all did an amazing job with their characters – at other times I found their crassness repulsive and offensive. The way they offered toss-away lines about horrible things like raping or murdering children just did not sit right with me. This is the nature of bouffon, certainly, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
The play was also quite long. It ran almost a full two hours and there’s no intermission, so at points it felt like it dragged on a bit too long.
It’s worth it to go, though, if only to marvel at the gory, ketchup-filled finale. I won’t give any direct spoilers but knowing that these are bouffon characters and ketchup is involved, I think you can put it together. Don’t sit in the front row. Or do, if that’s your thing. Maybe don’t wear white though.
So, again keep in mind that this is just my own humble opinion. Many people loved it: on the night I saw the show (opening), it got a standing ovation and I overheard a few audience members commenting afterwards on how much they loved it. So! Clowns are not my thing, but if they are yours – or you just want to see a ridiculous ketchup massacre – go check it out.
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