Barbican Theatre, London – until 19 January 2018
Titus Andronicus, once a real rarity in the Shakespearian oeuvre, has been seen four times at Stratford this century. Its unhinged excesses – 15 bodies piling up, mostly on-stage, along with four heads, three hands and a tongue – are now more familiar and more actors are testing their skills in its strange array of roles.
Blanche McIntyre’s production, transferred to the Barbican as part of the RSC’s Rome MMXVII season, features a fine performance from David Troughton in the title role. His performance as Titus, intensely watchable, is wracked with grief and both real and staged insanity. A mad martinet of a general, who seems to take pleasure in the sacrifice of 21 sons in the service of Rome and coldly kills another who disobeys, he understands true grief only when two more sons are executed.
The play is about war and loss, and its events show how conflict cannot be walled off but spills over into everyone lives. Titus’s apparently victorious campaign against the Goths turns out not be over, and follows him back to consume almost his entire family. At the same time, Rome is a sick civilisation in which democracy serves the egos of self-obsessed rulers epitomised by Martin Hutson’s sneering Emperor Saturnius.
Titus concerns a fictionalised Rome, so translating it to here and now as a nation-in-a-state play brings clear Trump era parallels, although the choreographed prelude involving protestors and riot police is standard-issue RSC staging. The set also features, oddly, balconies on either side set up for an absent orchestra, as though a previous show couldn’t clear out in time.
Many other aspects of MacIntyre’s staging are very effective though, in a play that betrays the callow Shakespeare lack of experience through its chaotic plot and use of highly un-theatrical devices such as a deep, dark pit. Troughton feigns madness from inside a large cardboard box, possibly a nod to Ridiculusmus’ box-based show about PTSD, Give Me Your Love.
The notoriously gory scenes of mutilation are presented with a well-judged balance of humour and horror, the pièce de resistance surely being the murder of Goth Queen Tamara’s two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, hung by their feet from the ceiling as their throats are slit and their blood drained into a basin.
Beyond Troughton, several performers stand out in play which offers an entertaining selection of parts. Revenging nihilist Aaron is played by Stefan Adegbola as distressingly calm, while whipping up the madness and engineering the violent deaths of much of the cast. Nia Gwynne, brutally treated and then sexually claimed by Saturnius, is as much a victim as an instigator. Hannah Morrish as Lavinia makes a startling transition from smug, privileged daughter to mute avenger.
Titus Andronicus is not a work of genius, but neither is it the crude, valueless play it was seen as for so long. It excesses seem much more familiar in a post-Sarah Kane world, and its challenge to the audience remains strong. Anything that remains this confrontational after so long is worth examination, and this production makes for a disturbing, memorable evening.