Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, The Barbican – Friday 5th January 2018
What is this play?
A tragi-comedy, a horrific farce, a historical nightmare? Alternatively, a very sloppy cookery show with some highly unpalatable outcomes? All of these, but the main course is horror with side dishes of humour. A play to probe the lowest reaches of human life and all the depravity available. “An interrogation of humankind’s capacity for cruelty and destruction” (Jonathan Bate).
This play is the culmination of the RSC’s Rome 2017/18 season. Coriolanus led the way. Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra followed on. None of these characters fared well. I can just hear Kenneth Williams bewailing “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”. Quite so. In Titus Andronicus, it seems that everyone has it in for everyone.
Setting and scenery
The scenery has been rearranged since the last time I was here, for Coriolanus, but there’s a familiar metal fence separating the emperor from the soldiers and the politicians from the common people. This creates a reassuring sense of continuity in my stalking of Shakespeare, but also represents ominous, seemingly endless social division and subjugation.
Always keeping out the plebs (all production photos via the RSC)
A play for our time?
All the RSC Rome plays have been given this label. Contemporising Shakespeare is a never ending theatrical exercise, pursued with timeless passion and ardour by the directors; in this case Blanche McIntyre. There is invariably something that has relevance today, but for starters in Titus, I wasn’t keen on the opening dance routine. Plebeians versus patricians; the rioting masses against the security forces, I get it. All carefully choreographed à la West Side Story. News of conflicts and disputes in Rome being announced by offstage newsreaders. Modern clothes and media formats will always make Shakespeare feel contemporary. I couldn’t wait for the actual play to get going.
Dressing to impress: modern day Shakespeare (RSC)
Horrific (but brilliant) performances
And get going it did. With ferocious vengeance. Reconciliation is never on the menu in this story. David Troughton gave a masterful performance as Titus. A proud, returning general, quick to hotheadness and aggression but politically naïve and easily duped. A vulnerable old man with a mixed set of family values and a worrying ability to laugh in the face of extreme acts of barbarity. A comic host, prancing around the banqueting table. Deliberately sloppy but deceptively skilful in the use of a ladle. Able to pick out the main ingredients of the dish being served up, presenting the worst aspects of humankind. All of these challenges were safe in his hands. Safe in his hand, rather.
Titus (David Troughton) brought low, but still able to cause a stir (RSC)
Another star on the night was Joseph Adelakun, called in at short notice as the understudy for the role of Aaron the Moor. It is a shame that Shakespeare felt the need to repeatedly use the word 'Moor'. No other character has a descriptor of this kind. Adelakun performed superbly, audibly and visibly growing in confidence as he developed in character. It must be tough, having to convince everyone including yourself that you are evil personified. Here, Aaron reflects on his crimes against humanity:
“Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will.
If any good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul”
(Act V scene iii)
Joseph Adelakun, called up at short notice and masterful as Aaron the Moor
(photo via Twitter)
Of all the horrific scenes in the play, the worst in my view was the sight of the wretched Lavinia (played by Hannah Morrish) after being assaulted by Chiron and Demetrius (Sean Hart and Luke MacGregor). It is hard to write about the horrors inflicted upon Lavinia. Mutilated and rendered speechless. A victim of extreme male violence against women. Morrish gave a heart-rending performance that was almost unbearable to watch. Shakespeare must have thought his audiences were ready for this amount of tragedy. I don’t think I was.
Lavinia (Hannah Morrish) under attack by Demetrius (Sean Hart) (RSC)
Hannah Morrish in the workshop, with just enough fake blood for one performance (photo via Twitter)
In contrast, there are some lighter moments. There is a scene where a Roman spin doctor (Paul Dodds) speaks his one line in the play in the voice of Ant or Dec, one or the other, and gets a laugh. Much fun is had with some unexpected interaction with the audience, as Titus steps down into the first row, soliciting money. He wants £20 and is offered twenty pence. Next he wants a fountain pen and is offered a plastic biro. Shakespearean actors must have higher standards than their audiences. Next, a clandestinely conceived baby, a problem child for some, is handed over by his father Aaron to an unwitting theatregoer for safe keeping.
The line between tragedy and comedy is wafer thin at times. Saturninus (Martin Hutson) comes across as an opportunist and a pathetic figure, chasing power and looking ridiculous in his Superman T-shirt, ignorant of what is going on all around him, complicit in framing innocent parties on charges of murder.
Saturninus (Martin Hutson). A superhero for his time (RSC)
Tamora (Nia Gwynne), annoyingly pronounced by the RSC cast as “Tamara”, plays out a weird scene where she addresses Titus who is feigning madness and hiding in a cardboard box. Boldy presenting her figure to all in front of her, and using all the guile she can conjure up, Tamora cavorts and schemes, and seems to be having some success. And yet, despite the terrible sadness she has suffered, and her wish to be avenged, this is not the woman than Shakespeare cares most about in this play and she ultimately comes to a sticky end.
Tamora (Nia Gwynne) with Titus under cover nearby
We may want laughs as an audience, but we surely also want justice, whatever that means here. Vengeance, one form of justice, is gained in one breath-taking scene when Titus slits the throats of Murder and Rapine (Chiron and Demetrius), strings them up by their feet, and hoists them high into the rafters. This is disturbingly satisfying.
And so, we have a main course of barbarity and a selection of side dishes of comedy. There are some great lol moments, but they are sardonic lols. With this feast of brutality, pathos, dismay and chuckles, Shakespeare rams home some important lessons in life. The most telling of these is that multiple wrongs do not make multiple rights.
Revenge begets revenge. At the end, in this production, Lucius (Tom McCall), the last of the Andronici and the only suitable candidate left to lead what remains of the empire, does not look safe at all. The cycle of vengeance is still turning and the decline of Rome is irreversible. There is no discernible trace of improvement in humankind.
If we really want to take a contemporary view on this, the prospects for society beyond the stage look bleak.
The end of the line for the RSC's Rome season
(Connected Cultures photo)
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
All production photos by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC
Links: The RSC - www.rsc.org.uk/titus-andronicus
Connected Cultures feature: The Decline and Fall of Humanity