Posted by: Richard Frost | 3 Apr 2020

Royal Shakespeare Company: Titus Andronicus review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: March 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost finds that Shakespeare has some serious issues

The Renaissance Scream?
Titus Andronicus. The name itself is enough to send shivers down the spine of any theatre director.

A grand total of 14 killings, 6 severed limbs, 1 rape, 1 live burial and 1 mother unwittingly eating her own children make this a nightmare to stage and far from palatable for conservative audiences. Its sensationalism and bloodthirstiness – S. Clarke Hulse gleefully points out its “average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines” – has seen it described as a slasher movie for the Renaissance, and led to many critics attempting to deny Shakespeare’s involvement.

Unsurprisingly, most theatre groups tend to stick to Romeo and Juliet. However, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has now risen to the challenge, with an engaging new production that will surely revive interest in this forgotten play.

Being such a well-funded company and performed in the stunning Theatre Royal, elaborate stage designs were to be expected. Stage manager Paul Sawtell didn’t disappoint with his use of the trapdoor and variation in the distance of the backdrops particularly good in making each location feel unique. Meanwhile, props were sensibly kept to the bare minimum to focus the audience on the complex and twisting plot.

But it was director Bill Alexander’s macabre vision of a disturbing world of vengeance that really grabbed the attention. The rare previous performances of this play have tended to emphasise the characters’ histrionics and Shakespeare’s often far-fetched plot twists, directing the play towards farce. By contrast, the terrifying intensity of Alexander’s production focuses on psychology and successfully shows the realistic effects on characters of these far-fetched events.

For the first time, Titus Andronicus is treated as a proper Shakespearean revenge tragedy, and it proves itself equal to the challenge.

William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus book cover

© The Arden Shakespeare

Hail to the Cast
Much of the credit for this success must go to the casting.

As arguably the world’s leading theatre company, their fame allows them to select the very best actors from film and theatre. Collectively, this cast can boast theatre performances of the entire Shakespearean back catalogue, as well as more contemporary roles in Coronation Street and seemingly every emergency-service drama ever made from The Bill to Taggart. David Bradley can also boast of participating in 3 Harry Potter films, although Daniel Brocklebank must cringe at the mention of his role in dire thriller The Hole.

All excellent actors then, and thankfully the vast majority treated Titus Andronicus as a serious, psychology-driven play. Bradley in the title role was a real success as he successfully showed the mounting horrors of his situation with the murders and mutilations of his children. He even excelled in the minefield situation of faking madness as he tried to revenge himself upon the bitter and immoral Goth Queen Tamora, which climaxed in serving her a pie made of her own children.

Tamora herself, played by Maureen Beattie, was perhaps less successful though as her thick brogue made her difficult to understand and rapidly became irritating.

Joe Dixon made the most of the sadistic Moor Aron and was truly shocking in his delight at other characters’ sufferings, before growing dangerously attached to his bastard son. Eve Myles also grew into her role of Lavinia as the play progressed, although initially she seemed to struggle to find anything of interest in her early scenes as a pleasant, dutiful daughter. Later though, her distress and anguish upon being raped and having her arms and tongue sliced off were brilliantly moving.

At this point, a special mention must be made of the special effects department and fight director Malcolm Ranson who can rarely have been challenged so much by a play. Depicting so many live mutilations, murders and battles is a potentially disastrous situation with any slips unintentionally turning the play into farce. However each of the effects worked perfectly, allowing the audience to suspend disbelief and accept the actions depicted as all-too-real.

If I was a Rich Man
All in all then, a fantastically dark and sinister version of Titus Andronicus, which makes a strong claim for a more accepting view of the story. As probably Shakespeare’s most difficult play to stage, it may well prove too tricky for Durham to reproduce, but RSC have proven that it can be done given the best facilities and crews.

This performance can only add to the Stratford-based company’s excellent reputation, and the only blot is that they won’t now return to the North East for their annual residency until next autumn.

The programme has yet to be announced, but two things are already certain. Firstly, it’s going to be a massive challenge to try and surpass this production and, secondly, it’ll be impossible to find a more savage and downright brutal Shakespearean play to perform.


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