Titus Andronicus: RSC Stratford upon Avon – theatre review

Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare
The Swan Theatre RSC,  16 May – 23 October 2013
Stratford upon Avon
Directed by Michael Fentiman

One of the lesser performed and gorier of Shakespeare’s plays, Titus Andronicus is going down a storm at the RSC. Louder Than War went to see what the fuss is all about.

(For Louder Than War’s readers of a sensitive disposition – and we’re sure there are at least a couple of you – please be aware that the video contains graphic scenes so please don’t watch if you’re stomach or mind isn’t cut out for that sort of thing.)

‘There will be blood’ promised the RSC trailer for this new production of one of Shakespeare’s more gruesome plays and they were certainly right.

Director Michael Fentiman has made a spectacular debut for the RSC with this production and his vision is evident as soon as you enter the compact environs of The Swan. The bodies of three of Titus’s sons are already being attended on stage by robed figures accompanied by the sound of a distant chant as traces of the ever-present fog drift across the room.

The use of a live band to perform incidental music enhances the development of the plot at key intervals as the tension builds and atrocities occur.

The catalyst to all these is the insistence of Titus, superbly portrayed by Stephen Boxer, on the revenge execution of the eldest son of his defeated rival , the Goth Queen Tamora, despite her desperate pleas for mercy. This sets in place a dark train of events as Katy Stephens’ excellent Tamora promises “I’ll find a day to massacre them all”. She colludes with her secret lover Aaron, who seems to have adopted Motorhead’s ‘no remorse’ slogan as his personal life code, to exact her vengeance on Titus and the macabre plot is set in place.

Tamora is aided in her quest for retribution by the decision of John Hopkins’ intriguingly unhinged Emperor Saturnius to take her as his bride after being refused the hand of Titus’ daughter Lavinia. The dark consequences of revenge unfold in layers and Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon offer chilling portrayals of Demetrius and Chiron, Tamora’s sons.

They set about the brutal task of murdering Bassianus, Lavinia’s husband, and then raping her before cutting off both hands and her tongue with a disturbing relish that turns to horror as the implications of what they have done hits them. Nevertheless, like the dysfunctional mummy’s boys they aspire to be, they cheerfully conspire with Aaron’s plot to falsely implicate two of Titus’ sons for these horrors.

The first half of the performance is a succession of dark and terrible deeds brightened only by occasional flashes of humour such as when Titus, his brother Marcus and son Lucius argue over who will sever their own hand to satisfy the Emperors demand in exchange for the two captured sons. It is also characterised by Boxer’s portrayal of a war-weary but still dutiful Titus and Richard Durden’s excellent performance as Tribune Marcus, the steady and loyal brother of Titus. The music, which fits naturally into the flow of the play, is used brilliantly at the close of the first half as Lucius is despatched to raise an army of Goths against Rome to the background of a thumping and ominous drum beat.

 

The second half sees the character development of a Titus set on vengeance when Lavinia manages to spell out the names of her attackers using a salt cellar. Rose Reynolds is making an impressive RSC debut as she takes us through the descent of her vigorous, youthful character into a shuffling, mute wreck who can only share her father’s desire for a horrible revenge.

Kevin Harvey also shines as the full extent of the bitter and unrepentant character of Aaron comes to the fore. There is much needed laughter at times which is just as well as events head towards a gruesome climax involving the butchery and serving of Demetrius and Chiron to their mother in a pie. The final feast scene, influenced by Quentin Tarantino, is a hilarious and gripping bloodbath that is superbly executed by an outstanding cast.

There’s no denying that Titus Andronicus is a bloody and, at times, harrowing spectacle that some may find too much. However this really is a fantastic production, well-acted and with a superb design team to back up Michael Fentiman’s inspired direction that is enhanced by the intimate setting of The Swan theatre.  It runs until October 23rd and is well worth making the effort to see.

Image by Simon Annand by permission of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

All words by Dave Jennings. More work by Dave Jennings on Louder Than War can be found here. He is also on Twitter @blackfoxwrexham.

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