If you’re fed up with the ordinary run-of-the mill nastiness and violence which you can see on TV every night, why don’t you indulge yourself in the real thing and come to see the most recent production of Shakespeare’s nastiest play, Titus Andronicus, at the Swan Theatre? You can get lots of murders, amputations, rape, tongue extraction, self-mutilation,Â burial alive and cannibalism, as well as the usual political double-crossing and machiavellian villany, all in the space of two and a half hours. There is the added advantage that, however dysfunctional you feel your own family might be, it is nothing compared with those in the play and so there is a sort of black feel-good factor at the end.
Titus is not very often produced and for good reasons. As being particularly hideous it has some difficult technical challenges and there is the awkwardÂ problem of deciding how gruesome to make the gruesome bits. Michael Fentiman treads a middle course. There isn’t a lot of blood (perhaps not enough to make a decent gravy for the human flesh pies) and the stumps from the amputations are quickly done up in nifty leather contraptions. Cleverly, Fentiman extracts what black humour he can from a bleak text and so the audience members have the chance of distancing themselves from the horror.
Motivation and psychologically accurate, complexÂ reflection are not strong points of this, one of Shakespare’s earliest texts, and soÂ audience engagement with the characters and their situations is very sketchy. The playÂ consists ofÂ revenge and events rather than dilemmas and reflections. It is a history play rather than a tragedy. The text invites a loud and shouty approach. There is some of that. John Hopkins’s Saturnius is loud and dominant but his character is established clearly in the first few seconds and never wavers throughout; it is a well controlled performance. Richard Durden gives Marcus Andronicus some range of human sympathy;Â Marcus treads awkwardly throughout the play, torn between keeping his head and showing some human loyalty and values. Durden also gives him some vocal variety which keeps the audience interested. Playing Lavinia, Rose Reynolds does some lovely dumb show work once Lavinia’s tongue has been cut out and once her face has been wiped up from the blood. We never get to know what she thinks, though – not that Shakespeare (or Peele or whoever) has much interest in exploring this. I thought Stephen Boxer did a splendid job with Titus. It’s a thankless task because Shakespare doesn’t give him an ‘inner Titus’ to reveal, but Boxer is lovely to watch and to listen to. One of the surprises and pleasures for me was the performance of the underwritten Lucius, played by Mark Needham.Â He gave the character dignity and, unusually in my experience, a character to empathise with to some degree at the end of the play. In some ways I’m reluctant to reveal what I thought was the best performance among these experienced RSC actors. For me it was George David’s Young Lucius. He was very strong in The Merry Wives of Windsor but here is superb: balanced, superbly concentrated and concentrating and drawing considerable range from a small part. I loved watching him.
The story is told very clearly – no mean feat in this play. There is also a feast of visual variety. The use of traps, platforms, group scenes, military shows, drum parades all gives the audience something intersting to look at. The production was extremely slick, even at so early a preview. The costumes are lovely, too. Colin Richmond does not go for a particular time or place. There is delightful variety of texture and colour, suggesting the universality of some the situations in the play. Katy Stephens as Tamora wears a remarkable variety of striking outfits which never fail to please the eye.
There are also some interesting and effective decisions. The play opens in a hospital mortuary with nuns (why on earth nuns?). The depiction of Goths as tatooed gives rise to an ending to the first part of the play which gives the audience something other than horrorÂ to talk about. Â Lavinia writes what has happened to her in salt. Very clever and mush less cumbersome than Shakespeare’s (or whoever’s) Â idea in the text. Titus dresses up in drag as a maid at his final banquet which becomes a kind of Keystone Cops horror event. The play ends not with Lucius’s long speech but with a mime asking the audience to consider what may happen in the future. In these ways the audience is left to reflect. It is a better ending to the play.
I had a quibble about the RSC’s current fashion for covering speech with music. It made some passages hard to hear. It took Kevin Harvey at this preview quite some time to settle on an accent for his Aaron, with the result that I understood almost nothing of his long initial speech and only began to hear what he said when the Liverpudlian accent came to the fore. Lavinia and Tamora were also drowned out by music early on.Â No doubt these were preview problems which will be resolved in time.
It seems perverse to say that I enjoyed watching this performance of such a nasty play. It is full of stagecraft and is well worth the trip to Stratford to see it, particularly if you haven’t seen a production of this play before. You won’t have any difficulty following it.
Why not make it an overnight stay in Stratford and see one of the other playsÂ in the same trip? And come and stay at MossÂ Cottage, rated number 3 on Trip Advisor at the moment forÂ B and Bs to Â stay atÂ in Stratford. You will have the warmest ofÂ welcomes.