One of the best productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this year is the gruesome early revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. Director Darko Tresnjak’s enthralling production features strong performances from the likes of Amanda Lisman, John Vickery and Bruce Godfree. But much of the play’s success rests on the shoulders of one of my favourite actors, a friend of My Theatre and a My Theatre Award winner last year- Dion Johnstone. In the crucial role of villainous Aaron, Johnstone steals the show with a performance that’s both frightening and unsettlingly charming.

After his great interview in the 2010 Nominee Series, I asked him if he would take some time out during the run of Titus to talk about his experience in the complex role. The gracious actor generously obliged, rushing over after a matinee to meet me for coffee and wax poetic about one of my favourite characters in the canon.

Read on for my candid (and spoilery- just a warning if you haven’t seen the show) conversation with Dion Johnstone.

How’s the run been going so far?
It’s been pretty good. The one thing that we’ve been struggling with a bit has been house numbers. It’s sort of fluctuated from being relatively full, but not a full house per say, to maybe 50, 60, sometimes even 40% houses. So at first that was hard. Not hard to perform, but just that feeling of emptiness. So what I’ve been doing is just remembering the performances- because we know that the feedback from the audience has been that they love it and that makes us feel really confident about what we’re performing. So you just remember what that energy feels like when it’s a relatively full house, and bring that feeling to the smaller audiences. When you’re in a smaller house, one thing you notice is audience members are less comfortable to react how they would, because there’s empty space all around them. It’s already a play that comes right out to you, so people are still feeling what they’re feeling but there’s a bit of a cap on it. So it’s nice to be able to bring them the energy of a full house performance.

I would imagine for you, specifically, it makes a difference because Aaron has a lot of the soliloquies in Titus.
Exactly. A lot of what I’m trying to do is build some sort of relationship with the audience to make them complicit in the action that takes place. So really making a connection is important.

In the Tom Patterson, because it’s so intimate, can you see everyone and make eye contact throughout?
Oh yes. It depends on the lighting. In the noose, [in 5.1] for example, there are some points where I’m sort of spinning around and I’m trying to really use the audience even more, to include them as though they were the Goths, and at that point I can’t see people’s eyes; I see more shapes because I’m in a spotlight and it’s dimmer lighting. But quite often the effect is bouncing the light off the stage so you see people’s faces, then I can make eye contact and sort of lock in to deliver a piece.

It seemed like the production had a lot of audience interaction sort of things. Actors come around with mini meat pies and offer them to people- someone at the show I was at actually took one; does that happen a lot?
Oh yeah, that’s the hope.

That they eat them then realize after? [that the pies are made of Tamora’s dead sons]
*laughs* Yeah, at that point in the play we hope for that. Cause everyone comes to it at different stages. There’s a real push and pull between ‘are we supposed to laugh at this?’, because it’s quite upsetting and horrendous, but then it gets really absurd. I think that’s Shakespeare pushing the envelope. Pushing the pain or the revenge so far to the extreme that it becomes absurd.

Your production really seems to emphasize the black comedy of the play, and make it almost funnier. John Vickery is just laughing hysterically in Act 5 and you’re like “wait a minute…”! It’s almost more startling, the violence contrasted with the comedy. Was that something the director was trying to emphasize? Was there anything really different he brought to the production that might differ from something more standard?
One of the things that he really did want to emphasize and bring out in order for the play to be effective was that the events, the catastrophes that happens to these characters, have to be real. You have to feel for Lavinia. If the audience is going to have any opportunity of siding with or understanding Tamora and her story, the murder of Elarbus at the beginning has to be effective and baffling and painful. You have to feel her pain. Because you’re gonna forget as the play goes on, but if you can at least start by understanding her journey, she has a fair chance. So those things have to be real.

But it was at a time when the revenge tragedies were really popular. So you get the sense that Shakespeare, who was still making his mark on the scene, was like ‘okay, I see what audiences are lining up in droves to see. I’m gonna do that, but I’m gonna do it even better. I’m gonna outdo it. I’m gonna push it to the farthest extreme’. So by the end hopefully, in our production, the audience is questioning ‘is it worth it?’ Is anyone ever satisfied in a cycle of revenge? You can’t get satisfaction. When you’ve cried all that you can cry you might as well laugh at the absurdity of your misfortune. Exacting revenge isn’t going to do anything to heal those wounds.

Another thing that Darko pointed out was the imagination of these characters. Horrible things can be happening onstage yet these people are speaking really poetic language. Tamora, in the scene where Lavinia is abducted and eventually raped, if you listen to Tamora when she comes out and speaks to Aaron, she paints this beautiful picture of the forest: she’s got the birds singing and the snakes slithering in the grass, it’s like this wonderful theme park almost. But by the time her sons are there to back her up against Bassianus and Lavinia’s accusations, she literally transforms the landscape from this beautiful place to a “barren, detested vale” where “never shines the sun”, you know “here, nothing dwells”. So either one of those versions is true and the other’s wrong or this woman has quite a huge imagination that it can be whatever she needs it to be. So it was that heightened sense- to try and match the violence with the heightened sense of the poetry, so that it starts off very realistic but as each murder happens and piles upon the other upon the other, they almost start to become art installations, so by the time you hit the massacre at the end, it’s a big showpiece with blood spraying out of the canons and everything.

Aaron is famously one of the bard’s most ruthless villains and a rare one who doesn’t repent in the end. What were some of the ways you were able to humanize him?

Certainly the gift that’s given is his child. He’s set there as a type in a revenge tragedy as the bad guy. That’s what people expect and it’s what they see. But inside, his internal psychology is quite different. I think Aaron, being of a moorish decent and background, lives in a world where, because of the colour of his skin, people think of him as a barbarian, if you listen to how times people call him “a devil” in the play, “devil” being associated with black; the way they compare him to a fly, to a crow-“did ever raven sing so like a lark”. There are so many moments in the play when to his face, or even just hanging in the atmosphere, there’s a pretty severe racism. And that’s the world he’s had to survive in. 

We get very little about his past prior to the beginning of the play. I imagine he had been captured by the Goths and made a slave, but because of his physical prowess was able to get noticed and rise through the ranks. He’s caught the attention of Tamora’s eye and they have a secret love affair that’s going on. He’s been given a position of marshaling the boys- training them, teaching them how to be warriors. That title allows him the convenience of their relationship. 

I find what makes him human is that in this world everyone is doing the best they can to survive; you look at the actions Tamora takes because of the death of one of her sons. Yet when her child is born of Aaron, because the child is black she wants to kill it, won’t even look at it. You look at Titus, who I think the big lesson for him is the value of family, in our production the son he embraces at the very beginning, less than 10 minutes later is killed for shaming him. Aaron won’t kill his own. I think you see what truly this man is capable of if you cross him in protecting his son. You get the sense as he speaks to his child that he wants to raise him with a sense of nobility. This is a child who, by birth, should be the heir to the empress but because he’s black that could never happen. The best that Aaron could give him is to teach him how to be strong, to raise him with a sense of nobility so that he could, at the very least, command warriors.

Do you think that goes hand in hand with specifically his fatherly instincts? Do you think it would have been the same if the baby had turned out white or is it more of a kinship of “someone, finally, that looks like me”?
They wouldn’t be trying to kill the child if he was white.

So it wouldn’t need as much protection.
There’s something in his child; he says “this child is the visage and the picture of my youth”. Something in the innocence and the potential of what that child could be reminds Aaron of the innocence and potential he once had. I get the feeling that that was cut off and taken away from him and in order to survive he became the hardened man that he is; he doesn’t want that for his son. And I think the tragedy of it is the one time that he’s done a good deed, fighting to save his son’s life- he’s able to exact a promise that he will at least be raised and fed, nurtured-, he can’t guarantee that the child will be loved, and he can’t protect the child from the environment that he’s going to grow up in. So I think it’s very surreal at the very end when he says “if one good thing in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul”. I think part of that is connected to the fact that he gave up his child and wishes that he didn’t.

So it’s more about that one good deed that he wishes he hadn’t done than wanting to be wholly bad and never have done one good thing?
That’s what I’m taking it as, to personalize it a bit more. It’s his final moment with Lucius and Lucius now holds his future in his hands, his child, that extension of himself. And he can’t be there to protect him. And I don’t think that child’s gonna get a lot of love. Knowing what he has gone through, why would he bring a child into this world if this is what you’re faced with all the time- brothers who would kill their own brother simply because his skin colour is black?

One of things you talked about in our last interview was, with Edmund [in King Lear] specifically, the idea of how much of this is a cold blooded-ness that he was born with and how much of it is the oppression that he had to live through, getting beaten down into the role of a villain. How does that question fit with Aaron’s story?
I don’t get the sense, and this is mostly because this is a genre play, that, all things taken away, Aaron is necessarily a good guy. But what I also question is “what is good?” I don’t think “good” gets very far in this world. You see it in one of the emperors, you see it in Titus, you see it in Tamora- people can’t afford to be “good”, they have to do what they have to do and if ritual says you kill a person, even though you could be merciful, but your ritual says ‘we need to do this to appease the souls of our brothers’, you do that. What about that is “good”? Who fashioned “good”? So I don’t think Aaron is a “good” guy and I don’t think Shakespeare’s gonna let him be that. But I do think a lot of the degree to where he has gone has been fashioned from the oppression that he feels. It’s almost as if when you compress a person down so much, a person who knows they have an inborn ability, knows that they have a beautiful culture, but all of that is denied, eventually for some people it’s gonna lash back. And I think that he sees himself one way then he hears ‘devil this, devil that’ and eventually says ‘you wanna see a devil?! I’ll show you a devil, I’m fully capable of showing you a devil!’. He says at one point “why should wrath be mute and fury dumb?” and I think he is furious at the position that , as an outsider, he is forced to occupy in society and he’s turning the tables on what they think one is capable of and their opinions and beliefs on colour.

You said a lot of his physical prowess allowed him to rise through the ranks but he’s also clearly very smart with his manipulations and understanding of people. Do you think a lot of his fury has to do with a sense of superiority, sort of “I could have been better than you if you’d just let me”?
Oh yes. I think watching this new transition with Tamora where he’s still kept in the shadows and wondering ‘why don’t we just off him and move me into the light? Why remain always in the shadows? Then we bring a child into the world and there’s no room to celebrate that because for fear of your own safety and your life, you want this child killed. So really, in the end, bottom line, my love served your needs at the time but I’m really just there to fix things for you’.

The idea that she would kill her child if it was black but not if it was white and that Aaron was good enough to take as a lover but not to take as a husband- there’s an inherent hypocrisy there. What does that say about Aaron’s relationship with Tamora and the power dynamic between the two of them?
He does tell the audience right from the top that ‘she’s my lover’, ‘she’s my love slave’ in fact, ‘I’m the one who’s running the show’, you know “she’s fettered in amorous chains”. But she’s the queen and it’s something that he can’t fight against. So I think he’s always struggling with that. He says “away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts, I will be bright and shine in pearls and gold [because that’s what I know my worth is. I’m not serving my mistress, I’m fucking my mistress]” *laughs*, you might want to bleep that. But you know what I mean? I think it’s a constant struggle between knowing that he’s more and being stuck in a position. And he’s certainly building a relationship with the audience, wanting them to see him for what he is and not the slave in chains, the fixer.

Does he have all the sexual power in the relationship while she has all the other power?
Yes. However, they are of like minds and he has the foresight to see it to the end. Knowing what has happened to Tamora and the grief she’s feeling over having lost her son, he’s the one who sets into motion, that very night, the plot to help ease her pain.

So the big motivation for a lot of the violence in the plots…
…it’s for her.

There is a genuine love there and it’s not just a power thing?
I think for him there is. Which is then betrayed. And at that point, for him, all bets are off. ‘I’ll clean this mess up for you, but all bets are off. I am of age and I have a right to take care of my own child, and I will’.

A lot of the bigger atrocities- convincing Titus to cut off his hand, pushing the boys to rape Lavinia- all that stuff, is that a matter of his loyalty to Tamora over all else? Are all those people symbols of the oppressive society? Why do their lives matter less than Tamora’s happiness? What’s the motivation?
Certainly with Chiron and Demetrius, it’s the first piece. He hears in a squabble, ‘oh, they love Lavinia’. He’s watched Tamora very skillfully mask all of her pain, but if you listen to her arguments, she starts marking people one by one- she marks Titus, marks Bassianus, marks the [Andronicus] sons, marks Lavinia, singles them all out, has them all get up and bow. And Aaron’s tracking all of that, he’s like ‘okay’ *points* ‘him, him, her, them’.

He’s like a hit man.
Exactly. And so the first opportunity, he hears from Titus that they’re gonna have a hunt tomorrow, he’s like ‘okay, there could be something there’. He sees the boys fighting over how much they “love”, quote unquote, Lavinia, so he questions them ‘are you talking love or talking lust? cause there’s a quicker way to get that’ and uses them. So part of the revenge is going to be revenge on Titus’ innocents.

Are a lot of the direct crimes just convenient?
The opportunities become convenient, yes. Things pop up and he’s able to go ‘great’, so by the time he comes out with the gold, he’s already dug the pit, he’s already gotten everything ready, now he’s gonna bury the gold. He’s already gotten the boys all riled up. He knows that there’s going to be a meeting in the woods, he’s fashioned the letter. He hasn’t even had time to tell Tamora about it. There’s a quick thing in the woods ‘you want to have sex? I’ve got something better- I’ve got this whole plot, murder and revenge, laid out for you. That’s gonna make you feel better than sex in the woods’ *laughs*.

How does he justify that to himself? Or does he even need to justify it?
I don’t think he needs to. Certainly from being in the cage and being in that position, you want to lash out, you want to get back. And that’s the thing with revenge, it’s not an intellectual thing, it’s coming from a place of pain. For him there’s pain in seeing her so savagely wounded and not being able to do anything about it. He has his old pain from his previous experience- he’s been in chains before, he knows what this is about. But immediately it’s about her.

For such an intellectual character, then, would you say he’s more of rash decision maker since he seems to be motivated by his heart, his gut and his groin?
I’d say he reacts from his head, because he’s generally making smart decisions. The mistake, if anything, that he’s made is the child. If she wasn’t pregnant with his child, they’d be living sweetly in Rome. The birth of that child destabilizes everything and sets a whole chain of events in motion- he’s got to kill the nurse, kill the midwife, cover all that, get his son, leave the country, try to get back into the land of the Goths. He’s there when he’s captured and caught. And to save his son’s life, he ransoms all the information on everything that he’s done and there’s nothing more that he can do. But prior to that mistake, which comes somewhat out of left field, he’s very careful not to be directly involved in the evidence, to have other people do it, to make it look like other people have done things. And to me that’s more of a keen intellect than someone working from the gut. He’s able to dig the pit, set it up so it’s the boys [Chiron and Demetrius] who kill Bassianus, the boys who rape Lavinia, toss the body into the pit and lure the [Andronicus] boys to make it look like they did it. All of that, I think is very smart. And he does it all in a night. From the time when she’s ascended, before dawn comes and they go out to hunt, he’s set this entire thing up. He’s been all night planning it.

Speaking of Chiron and Demetrius, throughout the piece you said he uses them as tools for his own needs. What’s the relationship setup going into the play between Aaron, Chiron and Demetrius and how do you think he feels about them?
On one level he’s almost like a glorified babysitter, in a way, to keep them out of harm’s way, to train them in what he can. He says “that codding spirit”- that sort of lustful spirit that they have- ‘they got that from their mother’, she’s the horndog of the relationship. “That bloody mind, [they got from me]”. So I get the sense that he’s the one who’s taught them how to fight, he’s taught them how to go to the lengths, how to cover their tracks, how to commit all of those kinds of deeds, how to detach yourself emotionally from it- that’s all Aaron’s, that’s his fatherhood in that sense of their education.

So then why doesn’t he have the same paternal instinct towards protecting them? Is it because they don’t belong to him?
And they, in a flash, look at him as black and are willing to kill his son, who is their brother.

When they turn on him, he turns on them.
Yeah. And I think the relationship, it’s stable at the beginning because it’s based off of fear. They’re in awe of him. They’re scared of him and in awe of what he can do. They don’t see him as an equal, they’re princes, he’s still their servant. But they wouldn’t cross him. So he’s able to keep them in check by fear of his prowess. But that’s all easy for him. He’s more tolerating their energy and guiding it to where he needs it needs to go. You see it when they try to cross him in the scene with his child. That’s where it comes out and you see then that he would have no hesitation in killing them in an instant- ‘here’s an example with the nurse of what I will fully do to you if you dare cross me’. It doesn’t come out until that point because I don’t think, until that point, the motivation for him has been as directly personal. It wasn’t his son that was murdered in the cage. His assistance to appease that comes out of his love for her, a love that he thought could grow into something bigger, could bring him into the light- ‘that’s not going to happen? I’m gonna take care of this child, make sure that he doesn’t have the life that I had’.

In our last interview you mentioned that it wasn’t until about halfway through the run of Two Gents that you really found Valentine. When did Aaron really start to click?
That was just crazy because with Aaron, it happened pretty quickly. Darko really set up clear parameters in terms of what kind of world we were existing in, right from day one. The imagery, everything, it was so vivid but very clear. Then he sort of set us free to romp and play in that playground. 

The few touches that he left for me as I began the process was he felt that everything in part one is easy for Aaron, there’s a light touch. He said ‘I like that and keep going there’. Then everything changes, it’s really like a pitch that’s come out of left field. For a guy who always plans everything, he didn’t necessarily plan that it would be his child. And that changes the game, then it becomes directly personal and then you see a real mercenary, a father, you see what happens when a parent is ignited. Then he becomes very dangerous in that moment. To be virtually at his death, about to be hung, and go ‘I don’t give two whits about my life, I’m not afraid to die. I can sit here and mock you to your face’ to Lucius. It’s the defence of his child that has him stumbling. It’s the first time that you see him beg for anything, it’s in that moment.

What were some of the biggest challenges when approaching Aaron?
Threading all of that was challenging. 

I didn’t find as much of a problem as I had in the past playing a villain this time around. It was fun.

Could that be practice?
Practice I think is part of it, and I just think the energy that Darko brought in was fun. Because everyone at one point is having horrible things done to them and at one point is doing horrible things to the other people, it’s a bit of a yin and yang. We’re all sort of sharing that ball. And so it just made it fun, everyone just wanted to dive in and do it, go as far as we could go with it. 

I do think that the challenge was, and still continues to be, timing. Knowing that he’s building to a place, with his child, where you can see the extremity of his passion, the extremity of his violence. So to let everything else be easy, to let the text come freely, to not work so hard to achieve it. So that when flashes come they’re just in flashes and then pure vitriol comes when he’s up there about to be hung. I haven’t capped myself before I get there, if that makes sense. So it’s sort of learning how to modulate, really let him come from a sort of zen place until it becomes personal and then let it unlock.

Is there anything that you’ve gotten to do with this part that’s been really fun or interesting that you’ve never gotten to do before?

Well, I’ve never had to cut off someone’s hand before! *laughs* I think the violence of it. I love physical work- sword fights and all that. But there’s something really sadistic in this. Like going to grab one of the knives to kill the nurse and going “nah, I’ve done that- ooh a hairpin, that’s new!” So the sadistic nature of some of the things that he’s capable of doing is new, and fun.

Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
Yeah, it’s not my moment though, and it’s just a fight move that I love, it gets me every time. It’s part of the black humour of it all. We’re in the spa scene and Demetrius says “let us go and pray to all the gods for our beloved mother in her pains” and I say “pray to the devils, the gods have given us over”. Then Chiron just turns and smacks the male prostitute who’s been fanning him. It’s just funny, a funny moment. It comes out of nowhere and just really shows, you can be enjoying something and then ‘okay, I’m done’ *mimes smacking someone*.

And how very Titus that it gets a big laugh, someone getting hit across the face.
Yeah, yes. Just that entire scene, the perversity of it, to be setting it in a spa. And to bring a nurse with a baby into there and have her all bloodied up. We’re all in towels, sort of exposed and vulnerable, and here’s Aaron, nonetheless, to father his child and disarm these hooligans. It’s just a lot that’s going on in such a strange setting but I love it.

Am I just imagining this or does your production cut off the end of the play?
The ending has been tweaked. We tried a few different endings and we’re still evolving it during the run, mostly in what Lucius tries to express to the crowd before he hands the crown off to someone else and says says *throwing hands up* ‘well, you try. Good luck’ *laughs*. It gets very very wordy towards the end and once you’ve had the massacre, you’ve kind of got to get on with it. And what Darko wanted was to end with Lucius looking at the crown and the spotlight sort of fading out on the world and him debating what to do. On another platform was a scroll that Lavinia would have had with her. And inside it is the words that she had been trying to get them to read the whole time. And you would hear her voiceover saying essentially, ‘you can cut out my tongue, cut off my hands and I will move the very rocks, the very earth shall move to express’. The boys were told not to let her live and they thought ‘oh, yeah, but we’re cutting off her hands- she can’t say anything’ but the truth will come out. So we did that, but then it felt like it was gilding the lily a little too much and too much of an audience split in terms of what they’re supposed to focus on. So we let go of that voiceover and put the focus more on the crown. There’s a sensation, hopefully, that the audience- I mean it’s a humorous button but you really get a popping sense of ‘was it worth it?’ And ‘who’s to say that by me taking this on, I won’t enact the exact same cycle that’s gone on before and will happen again. So you know what? You try.’

It leaves you wondering ‘Does it all come down to the opening scene when Titus chose Saturninus over Bassianus, would it have made a difference at all’?
Yes. The whole cycle of revenge: where did it start and where does it end? And can you ever find peace in it?

Is it always the same person who gets the crown? The same seat? Because Christopher Plummer was in the front row when I was there and I really thought he should have gotten that crown.
*laughs*. Yeah, it’s whoever sits in a particular seat is who it goes to, unfortunately.

Titus Andronicus plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford until September 24th.