THEATRE REVIEW – Titus Andronicus (RSC at Swan Theatre, Stratford)
It is easy to feel sympathetic towards ‘Titus Andronicus’. One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (maybe even his first), it is often derided by scholars and critics for sloppiness of language and the odd mix of brutality and black humour. However, if handled correctly, it can prove a hideously engaging, superbly repugnant, and blissfully entertaining journey towards the inevitable. Michael Fentiman (like Deborah Warner’s landmark 1987 production with Brian Cox) drags it from the doldrums kicking and screaming and (the horror and dread aside) invests it with energy, detail, and subtlety.
The inventiveness of Fentiman’s staging means that the production is epic and yet intimate – the dramatic sweep of the plot is very much present but the atmopshere created is one more often associated with a chamber piece. It struck me as a great pity that it is an oft-ignored play as here it is revealed as a deliciously grisly thriller; a jet black Elizabethan revenge tragedy, at turns icy, gritty, darkly comic, absurd, explicit, and horribly cruel. This is a Rome where the walls drip with blood, duplicitous figures lurk in the shadows, and bodies hang like slabs of fresh meat before disappearing into the heavens.
In what often feels like a crypt, the action unfolds fluidly and with impressive slickness – in fact, Fentiman uses the Swan wisely and often to great effect. The hopeless Messenger is hanged along the same walkway that sees Saturninus win his Queen and Titus feign madness, the central device either raises to bright (and often seedy) interiors or lowers to the murky depths beneath, and the final Tarantino-esque banquet scene explodes on to the thrust with breathtaking swiftness. An underlying soundscape – including live musicians – is crucial in conjuring atmospheres and punctuating the action and Chris Davey’s lighting is worthy of note, lending a harsh, steely note that can feel clinical, beautiful, or dangerous – sometimes all at once.
There is no doubt that Fentiman has assembled a top-notch cast. In the title role, Stephen Boxer gives us a grizzled and yet ultimately human warrior, passionate and stubborn, and one who hurtles head first into revenge despite knowing his own fate all too well. It is an unpredictable and brilliantly compelling portrait, constantly surprising and fascinating. Boxer often leaves the audience unsure as to his state of mind and flashes of anger and sorrow clash with knowing laughter and quiet introspection – indeed, on the discovery of the ravished and mutilated Lavinia, Titus is so consumed by grief that he seems unsure whether to erupt into tears of joy or anguish.
He is ably supported with a clutch of well-judged performances from Richard Durden as his gentle but headstrong brother, an ageing Tribune whose loyalty is quietly touching, Katy Stephens as a seductively toxic Tamora, John Hopkins’ sulking and snivelling Saturninus, and Kevin Harvey as a slimy, twisted Moor, secretly and horrifically infecting the city from within. Special mention must also go to Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon as Tamora’s aggressively thuggish sons who get dished up their comeuppance and Hal Hewetson as Titus’ grandson who delivers the final act of carnage.
It is not without flaws, though: a few minor characters’ diction needs attention, there are occasional dips in pace, and most crucially, I felt Rose Reynolds could have dug deeper into the tortured Lavinia. Saying that, this was only a preview and I am sure the performance will develop in time.
Also, if you are squeamish, I would advise against buying a ticket – the biggest gasps of the night came when a hand got given short shrift with a hacksaw and a nun was disembowelled – however, on the night I attended it has to be said the audience seemed to find themselves relishing the more gruesome elements of Shakespeare’s most bloodthirsty play.
So, a triumph for all involved and especially Fentiman, who is making his RSC debut with what seems a brave choice of project. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I emerged into the cold Stratford air feeling thrilled and chilled, and bizarrely enough, hankering for a hot meat pie.
edited Thurs 23 May to correct spelling of actor’s name