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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


  Matthew Needham and Kevin Harvey/ Ph: Simon Annand

Titus Andronicus is a play awash with blood, revelling in rape, mutilation and carnage, with a climax of cannibalism and multiple stabbings that would horrify the most hardened of street-fighting criminals and give Quentin Tarantino a run for his money.

Needless to say, it was also one of the most popular of all Shakespeare’s early plays, and is often brilliantly done today, too – by Peter Brook (twice), Deborah Warner making her RSC debut, Julie Taymor on film – quite confounding Anthony Burgess’ prediction 30 years ago that the play was way past its sell-by date.

It’s a well-plotted shocker with, as Jonathan Bate says in a programme note, a harsh but elegant symmetry to the action, and the violence is “artistically purposeful.” There’s a timeless, mythical quality to it, too, so that the excesses are those of people we don’t really recognise, characters in a video nasty.

Above all, perhaps, it’s a young person’s play, and therefore fitting that the RSC has entrusted this revival to a fledgling director, Michael Fentiman, who’s done time as an in-house assistant. He sets about his task with relish, but also a sharp eye (and ear) for the shafts of humanity and wisdom that pierce the gloom.

Stephen Boxer’s Titus, for instance, is presented less as a grizzled general than a sportive revenger hardened by grief – he’s first seen surrounded by the coffins of his sons, casualties of the war with the Goths – but not consumed by it. And his brother, the tribune Marcus, is played with a fine, aloof disdain by Richard Durden, aghast at what happens but no whit surprised.

This doesn’t make the catalogue of atrocities any more palatable, but the theatre is a place to see violence achieved technically, not joyously (we hope). The general’s daughter, Lavinia (Rose Reynolds), is deprived of her hands and binds the stumps in her own golden tresses. Her rapists, the wicked queen’s young sons (Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon), are strung up by their feet and have their throats sliced with a chill precision. The stabbings yield beautiful arcs of blood that almost reach the front row stalls in the Swan.

The greatest RSC productions – Trevor Nunn’s with Colin Blakely, or Deborah Warner’s with Brian Cox – translate the play into a symphony of grief and the title role into another version of King Lear. Fentiman and Boxer aim lower, perhaps, but still capture the energy and vitality of the play. It’s enormously, atrociously, entertaining.

And there are some notable new recruits to the RSC ranks in John Hopkins' grimly psychotic emperor Saturninus (avoiding the camp narcissism of Alan Cumming in the Taymor film); Kevin Harvey as a notably well-spoken Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s lover; and Matthew Needham as the upright Lucius, Titus’s sole surviving son.

Queen Tamora herself proves more rich pickings for the wonderful Katy Stephens, more tramp than vamp, but a very glamorous one in her flyaway cockatoo hairstyles, slit skirts, tattoos and vicious jewellery. When served the ultimate dish at Titus’ climactic banquet – not a dinner party you’d covet an invitation to – she nibbles querulously at her tasty dish of pâté de fils en croute even when apprised of the ingredients.

You think things might be getting back to normal when, right at the end, Titus’ young grandson cradles Aaron’s little piccaninny love child. But then you notice the boy’s not dangling a toy over the infant, but a spatula. Blood will have blood, they say.


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