Review: ‘Titus Andronicus’ @ The Swan (RSC)

Billed as Shakespeare’s bloodiest revenge tragedy, my expectations were geared towards intense emotional displays, horrific and (in some cases quite literally) unspeakable acts and interesting stagecraft. I got all of these, but there was something else embedded in this performance: comedy. Of all the things that I thought had a place in TA, farce was not something I’d been prepared for, and I’m still not sure I understand it fully.

What I did understand was the comical presentation of Saturninus (John Hopkins), who was consistently the well-educated and bumbling attempter-to-the-throne. It provided an interesting contrast to his brother Bassianus (Richard Goulding), who was firm and serious, perhaps the better material for Emperor, allowing the dark series of events that followed to be understandable from the decision to crown perhaps the wrong emperor.

I also understood the use of comedy in the farcical scene with Tamora (Katy Hopkins) as ‘revenge’, gone to send old Titus over the edge with dreams of bloody and gory vengeance against the empire. A ridiculous idea, and Titus himself (Stephen Boxer) reacted perfectly to the deceit in order cement the audience on his side by showing himself to be strong and cunning despite his losses. Now, this said, why oh why would our leading man, our strong and feared noble general, then come out to seek his revenge (and, just incidentally, kill his own daughter in front of dinner guests) in a maid’s outfit?! It made no sense whatsoever, and the bloody banquet scene became something that could have happened in ‘Blackadder(us)’, the untold Roman years. This was Titus’ revenge, the downfall of the Queen of Goths, the comeuppance of Aaron, the victory of Lucius…and the audience were rolling about laughing (literally, in one woman’s case). It just didn’t seem to suit the severity of the moment; after all the horrors we’d endured with the characters, we saw their worth melted before us, at least making this theatregoer questioning how much the characters really had suffered.

My bafflement at the creation of a tragi-comedy aside, there were some standout performances and the stagecraft was fantastic. My particularly favourite scene (it seems so morbid to have a favourite scene in such a brutal play) was when Tamora’s sons killed Bassianus in order to rape Lavinia. Chiefly, this was because Bassianus was struggling on the ground in order to save his love despite his own life being forfeit, moving the traditional Shakespearean long death into an emotional, tear-jerking struggle to defend and protect. Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) was by far and away my favourite actor in this play. She was so forthright in the beginning as to make her transformation to handless, tongueless and broken victim heartbreaking. For a role that can’t speak for the majority of the play, she really captured the stage, displaying a clear reverence for the psychological damage that had befallen her character.

Moving onto stagecraft, it must be very difficult to utilise certain techniques when your audience can very clearly see every move and slight of hand you make, as you can in The Swan theatre. However, the amount of fake blood that I didn’t see coming until it was spat out or dripping from vicious wounds was testament to the intricate detail put into this play. I think the really disturbing part was Demetrius (Perry Millward) and Chiron (Jonny Weldon) being hung upside down and then having their throats slit so that the blood dripped into a pan, ready for Tamora’s delectation; grim, in a word.

So really, overall, I did enjoy this production, even if I didn’t understand the choices made in some places. Maybe I’m not theatrical enough or maybe (most likely), I’ve taken the play too literally and not seen any other path to the end than the obvious. Either way, Titus Andronicus is running until the 26th October 2013, so give the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s works a try – just make sure you don’t eat the pies, and the first row might get bloodstained…

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