Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 2 September 2017
Blanche McIntyre strives to give an aura of political correctness to her take on the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays – but she misses the point. Titus Andronicus is always going to be more about its final act’s Imperial Bake-Off than it will ever be about the failings of society.
A lengthy mise-en-scene featuring masked social justice warriors protesting about “Austerity” drags the Roman setting to 21st century Britain. As an amuse-bouche it’s certainly well choreographed, (suggesting at times the Crapshooters’ Ballet from Guys and Dolls) but McIntyre protests too much, methinks. However hard a director’s moral compass may point her to dress up Titus Andronicus with a worthy polemic, one must remember that it remains little more than a 16th Century Carry On caper. Misogyny, mutilation, rape and murder drive the narrative, with a degree of violence that by today’s standards would be both offensive and gratuitous.
That’s not to say Titus Andronicus shouldn’t be performed. It merits its place in the canon, but for all McIntyre’s worthy endeavours she’s still delivered a play that treats women abominably and other than, perhaps, Aaron’s scheming lies being labelled as “Fake News”, has little real comment to offer upon today’s events, however broken our world may be perceived to be.
David Troughton is a strong and forceful Titus. His love for Rome is unquestioning as he carries the role of weathered warrior magnificently. We share his grief and he wins our sympathy as he pursues his own path in this most vengefully vicious circle. Likewise Martin Hutson’s Saturninus is appropriately oleaginous – there’s shades of any politician you may care to think of in his performance, but understand that any such resemblance is fleeting and barely more than superficial.
Nia Gwynne’s Tamora is a curious casting. Gwynne captures the complex essence of Tamora’s maternal vengeance, and in the final act her portrayal of Revenge is truly ethereal – but she lacks the sex-fuelled stature of a Tamora who’s as capable of seducing Saturninus as she is to wantonly surrendering to Aaron.
McIntyre is on record as having been kept “awake at night” (and rightly so) that the play’s violence against women is portrayed responsibly, but only in some very small part she has succeeded. Tamora’s wincing (was this an aspect of sisterly concern for Lavinia?) as her sons violently ravished the helpless young woman seemed contrived, as if to suit McIntyre’s agenda rather than define Tamora’s credibility. And again, in the play’s endgame, one might have hoped that McIntyre, as a modern woman, may have offered some tiny moral slant on Titus’ slaying of his daughter as worthy of some critique for the despicable “honour killing” that it truly is, rather than let it flash by in the melee of mealtime madness.
Where McIntyre has offered some new insight is in her use of the supernatural. The spirits of Titus’ dead sons Quintus and Marcius appear often, not least in the scene where Titus overpowers and captures Chiron and Demetrius, assisted by the two dead brothers’ bloodied but muscular ghosts. In a scene that is often hard to explain technically (just how does the old Titus come to overpower two fit and strapping young lads?) McIntyre makes it work. The ghost of Alarbus also appears in a final moment that offers a jolt reminiscent of the closing shock of Stephen King’s Carrie, hinting at the never ending cycle of Rome’s revenging curse.
Hannah Morrish’s Lavinia is a charming if emotionally muted interpretation. Bereft of tongue and hands, the role will always be challenging and whilst Morrish garners our sympathy, were she to dig just a little deeper she’d make us weep. Luke MacGregor and Sean Hart (respectively Chiron and Demetrius) are recognisably modern day thugs. Both actors possess a lithe muscularity that supports their personae and they equally impress, suspended by their ankles, as Titus wreaks his vengeance upon their throats. There’s a hint of TV’s Nick Hewer (or maybe Theresa May’s husband Philip) to Patrick Drury’s Marcus where again, a little more depth might really show an avuncular love for the violated Lavinia.
Arguably the star turn of the night is Stefan Adegbola’s Aaron. His vocal work is perfection and with sparkling eyes and an amazing physicality, Adegbola truly suggests the diabolical, at the same time displaying a love for his bastard child that is as passionate as his contempt for those he ruthlessly despatches.
The lighting, music and design are fun and if there’s a minor niggle, its that the hardworking RSC techies still need to sort out the effectiveness some of the hidden blood bags (especially Bassianus’), where a clumsy special effect can easily shatter the hard won suspension of our disbelief.
The political treatment may be naive, but the merciless misogyny of Titus Andronicus is probably and sadly timeless in too many of today’s multi-cultured communities – it’s only a shame the programme notes don’t highlight that particular observation.
Nonetheless, lavishly budgeted productions of Titus Andronicus don’t come along that often and so for that reason if no other, the show is worth a pie-packed trip to Stratford. Or why not book now to see it at the Barbican over Christmas, for a very alternative festive feast!