Monday, 28 October 2013

Theatre Review: Titus Andronicus at the Swan 2013

Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus has always had a bad rap. Featuring (in no particular order) murder, rape, mutilation, dismemberment, filicide and cannibalism, some critics refused to believe it was even
penned by the bard, while it’s rarely performed among the hundreds of Hamlets and Othellos (although it’s certainly increasing in popularity with modern audiences).

In fact, Titus probably has more in common with Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy as well as later dark and twisted Jacobean revenge dramas like Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy or Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Shakespeare’s audiences, used to the influence of bloody Senecan drama, loved it.

The story follows Titus, an ageing general of Rome who’s spent years and years dedicating himself to the Empire and fighting the goths. In fact, he’s already lost twenty (yes, twenty) sons in the war. At the start of the play he returns to a Rome that’s in political uncertainty as two brothers campaign to become Emperor. But he doesn’t return alone; Tamora, the captured queen of the goths, and her sons are in tow. Titus promptly sacrifices one despite Tamora’s pleas for mercy.

And this is where the trouble starts. You see Titus is a stickler for rules. He’s the kind of guy who calls a spade a spade and he believes in the chain of command. So not only does he turn down the chance to rule Rome himself, he refuses to support the younger and more appropriate brother. Instead he puts Saturninus on the Emperor’s throne (big mistake). Before you know it, the Emperor’s freed Tamora and married her…and boy does she want revenge on Titus.

Many of the difficulties in the play come from the excessive, almost cartoon-like violence as well as the sometimes jarring combination of horrific action and beautiful language. When Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, rape Titus’ daughter Lavinia they hack off her hands then cut out her tongue so she can’t speak or write their names. Her uncle’s lament turns her into some delicate woodland creature or plant, ‘hewed […] Of her two branches’ while her disfigured mouth releases ‘a crimson river of warm blood / Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind.’ Michael Fentiman’s 2013 production for the RSC at the Swan deals with the extreme nature of the play with an assured and deft use of black humour.

Not that Lavinia’s assault is handled lightly – I’m pretty sure such treatment would lose any audience immediately. The complete horror of her ordeal is heightened by the early bloodless stabbings in Act One, so when she finally opens her mouth the sight of all that red stuff spouting out onto her soiled white dress is all the more shocking. Chiron and Demetrius’ cruelty is intensified as they've hacked off her long blonde tresses and tied it round her stumps. Rose Reynolds plays the part with sensitivity and an increasing resilience; she delivers a judgemental 100 yard stare that penetrates the dark depths of any soul. There’s even a bit of awkward humour as she tries to eat a boiled egg with no hands in a kind of Hulk-Smash! moment.

But uncomfortable scenes aside, where this production really excels is in its biting, witty and deeply dark tone. In the ‘70s literary critic Nicholas Brooke pointed out how Jacobean and Caroline tragedy provoked “horrid laughter” in contemporary audiences – something that modern performances deliberately tend to minimise. Heaven forbid we laugh in Act Five of Macbeth or Lear.

Fentiman’s production however gives us the go-ahead to laugh all we want. There’s heads and hands flying about all over the place, severed limbs used as comic props, Titus dressed up as a kind of mad Nippy in a Lyons tea shop, and a finale that’s a triumph of orchestration. Tamora’s (Katy Stephens) expression when she realises she’s been feasting on her sons (murdered by Titus and baked in a pie) is priceless. The stage erupts into chaos – a jaw-dropping melee of mass murder and violence by unusual and comic means: Titus is stabbed with a table leg, one of the Emperor’s wenches rogers a dinner guest up the arse with a cake cutter, a corkscrew is rammed into a neck and I noticed one character gleefully brandishing someone else’s tongue on the end of a fork. 

Stage blood becomes more and more prominent as the play progresses, and I'm pleased to report that I got spattered when Titus cut Chiron’s throat (front row seats = very interactive). The audience go with it – there’s laughter and chuckles and guffaws. And a few gasps; Aaron’s murder of the nurse is particularly inventive. Not content with just stabbing the poor woman (who emits an almighty shriek) he rolls her over and sticks the knife…well let’s just say if you’ve seen Se7en you’ll know what I mean. On the night I went one woman in the audience lost all constraint at this point and bellowed out, “OH MY GOD!” in the loudest voice you could imagine. Of course we all laughed. I bet the actors high-fived each other backstage.

Both Stephen Boxer as Titus and John Hopkins as Saturninus are excellent, bringing a great deal of humour to their performances. Katy Stephens is mesmerising as Tamora: fierce, sexy, manipulative and with a great rock queen wardrobe. The sons Chiron and Demetrius (Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward) come as an identical pair of idiotic (but dangerous) buffoons riding BMXs. Aaron, the devious Moor, is physically a commanding presence, but he didn’t quite pull it off; I wanted him to be a bit more wickedly evil. After all, this is the guy who’s done a ‘thousand dreadful things’ (murder, rape, arson, cattle mutilation, corpse defilement…just the usual really).

The set-design and costumes show an eclectic mix of historical periods and cultures; there’s Nazi-esque iconography, modern riot police, Moorish temples, Muslim veils and the influence of classical Rome. Violent acts aren't just specific to one particular time, and a play that was hugely popular with contemporary early modern audiences still speaks to us today (this production opened in the same week as the shocking Woolwich slaying).

Titus Andronicus is an absolute triumph: disturbing, funny and relevant. It never descends too far into farce though, and the last moments are chilling. Aaron, buried up to his neck in the earth, is powerless to prevent the young boy Lucius (Titus’ grandchild) from picking up his baby…and then the cake cutter. The boy looks at both speculatively before the lights go out. It’s a bleak comment on how violence breeds violence, and it’s hard not to think of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. It’s a bloody (literally) brilliant production. Oh and by the way, the stage blood did come out in the wash.

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