Interview: Kate Werneburg talks Titus Andronicus

Seven Siblings Theatre takes on Shakespeare's first revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus

Seven Siblings Theatre, whom I've previously mentioned here and here, are going classic with their take on Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus

Widely considered to be his first revenge tragedy play, and often dismissed during his time as low-brow fare, it tells the story of a creepy Roman general, and the woman who seeks revenge on him. 

I had the chance to ask actress Kate Werneburg a few questions about the show. Her answers are below the cut. If you'd like to read my other interviews, reviews, and curated theatre posts, please see my author page at

Can you talk a bit about the play for folks who may not be familiar with it?

Titus Andronicus is a revenge tragedy written by William Shakespeare. Titus Andronicus, a victorious Roman general, returns home to Rome from war with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons and her lover Aaron as his prisoners. Titus ritually slaughters Tamora's eldest son, and she vows revenge on all Titus' family. Titus and Tamora, exacerbated by Aaron, engage in an ever-escalating series of vicious, unspeakable acts of revenge until at last order is restored. This story involves multiple murders, mutilations, and a rape. It explores the depths of human viciousness and what motivates it.

How is this mounting of Titus unique from other productions, and in what - if any - ways is it similar?

This production of Titus Andronicus is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth, in the Roman catacombs after something has destroyed the face of the Earth. The Romans have gone underground, and have kept traditions of technology, education, and formal politic structures in place. As they have burrowed into the Earth, they have found and made allegiances with deities who are animated by blood syphoned from human corpses. These characters are played by puppets, some of whom are animated by multiple actors. The Goths in this production are surface dwellers, people who have chosen to brave the harsh climate of the surface and value sensuality, pleasure, and strength-based power.

While we are playing within a concept with elements of science fiction, this production explores the enduring themes of the play, such as different kinds of parental love, whether revenge is a useful or destructive tool, and what it means to be an insider or to be othered. I hope the audience will have moments of real struggle when they are determining where their moral compass is during the play; in the best Shakespearean tradition, all the characters are rounded and complex, and we can see elements of ourselves in each of them. It can be very unsettling to realize we have within us sympathy for a murderer, or can identify with the deep desire to commit vicious acts of revenge.

Titus is widely considered Shakespeare's first tragedy, and a bloody one at that. Can you describe how working with such a serious subject matter is affected by an arguably less serious medium, puppets?

I would argue that puppets are only as light-hearted as you choose to make them. They can be a very effective way for an audience to project themselves into a story in a way that is harder to do when a character is embodied by a real live human. I play a lot with Saturninus, the Emperor of Rome, who in this production is played by three actors in a huge puppet. It's actually very exciting to have three different voices, hearts, and minds to play with in the body of one character.

Can you talk about the Chekhov method and how that affects your performance as an actor?

A great deal of my formal acting training was based in the Chekhov method, and it's very interesting to return to a rigorous application of that method. For me, it's been illuminating to realize which parts of Chekhov work I've synthesized into my own personal process, and which parts still feel new or difficult. Chekhov is not a word-based method, and Shakespeare is a very wordy playwright, and so it's been in turns freeing and challenging to approach this play through this lens!

Finally, anything you'd like to add, either about the show, the play, or yourself?

I've been thinking a lot about who this play was initially performed for: An audience which was overwhelmingly male and white. The part I'm playing was originally played by a pre-adolescent boy. Tamora's lover Aaron is Black, and was originally played by a white guy in blackface, a practice that was still largely acceptable through the 20th century. I can't help knowing that for that original audience, the depravity and cruelty that Tamora and Aaron exhibit throughout this play were on some level a comfortable affirmation of that society's oppression of women and exclusion of people of colour. Now adult women and men of colour play these roles, and we still live in a racist, sexist, society. I've been thinking a lot and talking to my fellow players about about how we acknowledge that part of this piece's legacy, while challenging that perspective.

Details:Titus Andronicus is playing at The Citadel (304 Parliament Street)

October 27 - November 6, 2016. See website for specific show times.
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