Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – until 15 April 2023
Jude Christian’s new production of Shakespeare’s least reputable play, Titus Andronicus, has an all-female cast telling us immediately that perceptions of power will be tested to destruction. The presence of a guillotine on stage strongly suggests they will also be chopped up into little pieces.
The last time the Globe Theatre produced Titus, Lucy Bailey delivered a famously blood-soaked production, with audience members stretchered insensible from the pit. Fifteen years on, there is sense that we need to think more about why we are still producing and watching this Gothic gore fest. Can Titus, dismissed for much of its history as a primitive potboiler unworthy of Shakespeare’s genius, really speak to our times, or should we just enjoy it for what it is. Christian’s production may not entirely answer these questions, but she gives the audience a very good time in the attempt.
Each half of the show starts and ends with songs, written for the show by cabaret duo Bourgeois & Maurice, which attempt to contextualise the play. Performed by an energetic cast with a thoroughly enjoyable chemistry, they are very funny.
The opening number tells us to relax, “enjoy the bloodbath” and forget our own miserable lives. This seems a little apologetic, but the production tests how far this is really possible. Titus Andronicus is more folk tale – the nasty kind – than history, punctuated with rape, mutilation, murders aplenty and spectacular, gruesome revenge: as Bourgeois & Maurice put it: “Men killing men killing men killing women killing men killing men killing flies.”
It cannot be taken entirely seriously, yet it certainly has something to say about men and power. The gender swapped cast opens up fresh interpretations, while giving a series of excellent performances.
Katy Stephens, who feels like an underrated actor despite her central roles in the RSC’s 2000s history cycle, is excellent. She plays Titus as a fantastically deluded and dangerous character. A stooge for unscrupulous rulers, he has lost 22 of his own sons in the cause of Rome and ‘honour’, and soon murders another on stage for disrespecting the emperor. Asked to choose between Bassianus and Saturninus for the top job, he picks the latter – a comically ill-advised choice.
Lucy McCormick’s Saturninus is a twitching, gurning psychopath and, in an extremely entertaining piece of acting, the most obvious baddie you could imagine. Titus slips into madness after his daughter, Lavinia, in the play’s most notorious scene, is raped and has her tongue and hands cut off. However, the madness does not bring the clarity one might expect, spurring him only to focus his killing skills on revenge, rather than his own family. Like Rome he a staggering corpse-in-waiting, with death the only logical end point for an autocratic, fascist society.
The staging hints strongly at a mental hospital. Co-designed by Rosie Elnile and Grace Venning, the set has palatial arches but a suspiciously clinical floor with easy-to-mop corners, while the cast wear what look like pyjamas, in teal, tangerine, aubergine and duck-egg blue. Watching the inmates puts us in an uncomfortably complicit position. Staging the absurd levels of violence is the biggest challenge in producing Titus, and Christian using a clever solution, specific to the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Theatre.
Each character holds a candle, and when their life ends it is snuffed out – sometimes just like that, at other times under the guillotine or a steak hammer, or very slowly with a blowtorch or power tools. Saturninus dismembers one candle with his bare hands. This approach lacks the gore value of more direct physical violence, but is psychologically effective.
The production also asks us to rethink our assumptions about Aaron, ‘The Moor’. Kibong Tanji plays him as living up to the role assigned by a shamelessly racist Rome, as the play’s ultimate villain. He and his lover Tamora, the captured Goth queen played by Kirsten Foster, are as close as this play comes to characters we can understand as they take on the Romans at their own game, slaughtering with hesitation. However, the play’s ending is changed so that Aaron, who Shakespeare leaves to be buried alive, escapes with his baby, whom the Romans would have killed. However, its is Titus’ final acts that stick in the mind: the ritualised destruction of women in the play and their roles. He kills his own daughter Lavinia (a stunned Georgia Mae-Mayers), deeming her life worthless after the shame of her rape. And he feeds Tamora her own sons baked into a pile of pasties before killing her, symbolically destroying her motherhood.
Jude Christian shows us ways to think differently about the play, but her achievement is really the atmosphere she has generated in working with the cast. Performances are delightful to watch as the cast pull very obviously together. Playing Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, Mei Mei MacLeod and Mia Selway interact beautifully as a pair of twisted, constantly fighting teens. A special mention should be saved for Beau Holland, who plays eight different roles. Cut off early as Bassanius, she returns as a series of increasingly short-lived characters, announcing herself as a midwife, a clown and eventually a fly, all done away with shortly afterwards. She even plays both of Titus’s young sons at once, introduced without explanation, thrown into a pit and then framed for the Emperor’s murder. Her comedy makes a strength of the play’s absurdities, part of a cast who send us away as entertained as we are disturbed by the bloodfest, and by an energetic, clever and questioning production.