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Those protective ponchos that came with the splatter-zone seats for the recent revival of the horror classic Evil Dead: The Musical might come in handy for those planning to see Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's biggest bloodbath.

Black Hole Theatre, the University of Manitoba's student troupe, is presenting the Bard's goriest tragedy, which averages more than five atrocities per act. That savagery is probably why no one can remember it ever being presented in Winnipeg. The local première comes at a time of renewed interest in the script, which was written about 1590.

Actor Nick Petuhoff channels his inner goth in the Black Hole Theatre's production of Titus Andronicus.


Actor Nick Petuhoff channels his inner goth in the Black Hole Theatre's production of Titus Andronicus.

Global barbarism has suddenly made it Shakespeare's most relevant work, which seems to speak across the centuries.

"It's because of our bloody, bloody times," says Chris Johnson, who is co-directing the revenge play with Bill Kerr. It runs to Nov. 29 in the lower level of University College, 210 Dysart Rd.

"At one point, the play was dismissed as preposterous, but here we are living in a time when we have beheadings on iPhones."

The Tarantino-esque plot begins with Roman general Titus Andronicus returning from the wars against the Goths with their Queen Tamora, her sons and Moor lover Aron as captive. Titus sacrifices her eldest son to the Roman gods, a death that is avenged by Tamora's other sons, who rape and mutilate the general's daughter Lavinia.

For hundreds of years the play was thought to be preposterous because of its grotesque violence, which comes to a crescendo with the scene in which Titus gets back at Tamora by murdering her sons and baking them in a pie that is served to her at a banquet.

But the theatre world has come around to thinking that the play's violence is not so extraordinary, after all. Last year in London, where it was first presented, a British soldier on the street was hacked to death in a revenge killing. The motivation for many revivals is to demonstrate graphically the eternal truth that violence begets violence.

"It was restored to the repertoire and valued as a play by German theatre companies shortly after World War II," says Johnson, a theatre professor. "(Critic) Harold Hobson famously said of it, there is nothing in the play that would be surprising to a survivor of Auschwitz."

There were other reasons that artistic directors shied away from it. Shakespeare's poetry doesn't soar as his later writing does, although Johnson says there is a wonderful speech in which Titus compares his grief to the sea. Also, The Bard made the villain Aron -- an ancestor of Iago in Othello -- black.

Directing Titus Andronicus was on Johnson's bucket list, but it follows closely Black Hole's last production -- Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman -- which some would call a repellent creation involving child murders.

"There was some concern that maybe we were doing too many violent plays and that we were becoming the blood-and-gore theatre," Johnson says. "The idea is that we should be doing difficult work, that is what university theatre is for, to a certain extent."

And there is nothing in it that is shocking to his student cast, headed by Ian Bastin in the title role.

"Have you seen any video games lately?" Johnson says. "They made that comparison specifically. The show is like a violent video game."

One of the side-effects of stage brutality is the darker the nastiness, the funnier the comedy. That's why there is no sanitizing the play's body count -- 13 -- or its bloodletting.

"We have a great deal of blood. One of our central metaphors is that we don't clean it up so the stage gets bloodier and bloodier as the evening goes on. The final scene looks like a butcher shop."