Titus Andronicus at The RST, dir. Blanche McIntyre, 1/7/2017.
Reviewed by Sara Marie Westh
The red warning posters warns prospective audience members at the RST that the play they are about to see is Shakespeare’s bloodiest, and that it contains “bad language”. The former statement is undoubtedly true, while the latter appears to pass judgement of the sort favoured in scholarship long past. A.W. Pollard famously divided the quartos into good and bad, and T.S. Eliot complained that Hamlet was “most certainly an artistic failure”, both gentlemen writing in the first half of 1900.
Of course, Titus contains a multitude of “bad language”, that is language that would almost certainly be bleeped in any TV programme airing before the dusky harbour of the free-for-all watershed: “Foul-spoken coward”, (2.1.58) “unmannerly intruder”, (2.3.65) ”inhuman dog, unhallowed slave!” (5.3.14) etc. My personal favourite is Aaron’s “Villain, I have done thy mother” (4.2.76), possibly the earliest recorded clap-back of its kind, although I would be happy to be corrected on this account.
Language aside, the “bad” element of Titus arguably lies in its sudden, bright flashes of extreme cruelty, from the opening dismemberment of Alarbus over Charon and Demetrius’ crowing mockery of Lavinia, to Aaron’s murder of the nurse, and Saturninus’ hanging of the clown, all acts of escalation culminating in the horror of the final banquet. The erosion of humanity showcased by the play, as Roman honour and Goth family values disintegrate, is always extremely unnerving in its inexorable march to the grotesque: in this play, Rome certainly becomes “a wilderness of tigers”. (3.1.54)
The RSC Titus is tightly wrung, and manages to maintain an increasing sense of unease throughout. Here, the first half is a study in the misdeeds that prompt the retribution of the second half, with the old general as its constant narrative centre. In this play of starts and shocks, I was particularly struck by 3.1, where the text calls for Titus to cut off his own hand. In the RSC production, rather than having him wield his own blade, a table with surgical equipment was wheeled on stage, accompanied by two nurses. Titus was fixed to the table, and his hand removed with minimal blood-splatter in what struck me as an uncomfortably clinical display of human powerlessness.
In the final scene, as the gruesome truth of the frankly enormous pie is revealed, the production dips into Tarantinoesque gore, as Titus fishes Chiron and Demetrius’ faces out of the dish. After bleeding the brothers in 5.2, this was an unnecessary detail, and a distraction from a moment that magnetically draws all eyes to Tamora. Then again, the exaggerated nature of the cut-off faces could be justified as in keeping with Titus’ role as a dark Lord of Misrule at the feast, a role Tamora’s reaction to her unwitting cannibalism detracts from.
David Troughton is a magnificent Titus, displaying the closely guarded weakness of the elderly in the first half, and verging on cheerfully giggling madness in the second. Nia Gwynne provides a brutal portrayal of Tamora, moving seamlessly from grieving mother to a woman urging rape, powered throughout by thirst for vengeance. Hannah Morrish is a heart-rending Lavinia, brilliantly visceral in her reduction to mute sign of the violence she endures. Martin Hutson is a justifiably neurotic and paranoid Saturninus, Sean Hart and Luke MacGregor combining the demonic and the laddish in Demetrius and Chiron. Stefan Adegbola as Aaron takes a deep and profoundly creepy joy in the effect his speech to Lucius has in 5.1, his obvious joy at causing pain overshadowing any concern he might harbour for his infant son. In the background of the set, behind glass doors, the unappeased shadows conjured by Lucius in 1.1 watch the action unfold, mute reminders of the rising death toll and the bloody inheritance of this Rome, that must be answered.
Unfortunately for this otherwise striking and memorable production, the costume department has not quite managed the illusion of missing limbs, a particular draw-back in the case of Lavinia, who dies vaguely reminiscent of Slenderman.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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