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…

Review: ‘King Lear’ @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Greg Hick's as the fallen King.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘The Tragedy of King Lear’ was a mixture of theatricality and raw emotion, all of which combined to show Lear’s descent from fool to madman.

Briefly, the plot revolves around Lear giving his lands to his two daughters, Regan and Goneril, but refusing to give his favourite daughter, Cordelia, her land as she says that her love is beyond words: a notion that does not sit well with the imagery-conscious Lear. She is banished to her marriage with the King of France, but Lear soon realises his other daughters mean to overthrow him, causing his descent into madness.

Although Greg Hicks was a fantastic King Lear, I think more praise is due to Sophie Russell (the Fool), Katy Stephens (Regan) and Charles Aitken (Edgar), who were superb in their supporting roles and were major driving forces behind the performance. The Fool’s unerring dedication to Lear was one of the most heartfelt aspects of the play, reaching its climax when Lear stood in the rain and the Fool is weeping at his feet, symbolising the movement of Lear from master to the pity of fools. Equally, Regan showed the passion behind the sisters’ plans to dethrone their father, providing the motivation and weaving seamlessly amongst the other characters to manipulate and devastate them. Finally, Aitken’s performance as Edgar/Poor Tom was brilliant to watch, as he shifted between guises his devotion to his father, Gloucester, and his rise from the ashes was performed spectacularly and without losing the credulity of Edgar’s compromised position.

There were times when the play felt versed: Cordelia, in particular, spoke as if she were reciting a poem, as opposed to acting the words, leaving her more of a representative figure as opposed to a human character. Some of the minor cast members also did this, but it definitely did not detract from the impact of the play.

Greg Hicks’ performance as the troubled King was amazing. He was able to dissemble from upright King and leader to downtrodden madman convincingly, and prompted a few laughs which underlined the extent of his descent into lunacy. Clearly well-rehearsed in Shakespearean acting, Hicks was able to manipulate Lear’s language to ensure that, despite his original folly, he was abused, which was complemented perfectly by Poor Tom’s feigned madness and Kent’s unwavering dedication despite the King’s misjudgement.

The theatrical elements were absolutely brilliant. The rain upon King Lear was a perfect way to both close the first half, and show the beginning of his descent into madness, perfectly setting up the shift to instability in the second half of the performance. However, the best staging came when Gloucester’s double life was exposed, and his eyes were plucked out as punishment: despite knowing it was coming, the inference of the action was still a squeamish affair, and maintained the pace of the performance despite the potential for the gruesome act to be mis-played and appear overly-fake or over-dramatised.

‘King Lear’ ended heartbreakingly, with the death of all three sisters at each other’s hands, whether directly or indirectly, highlighting the extremity of Lear’s mistake. The stage held five bodies at the ending, each one representing something lost, whilst Edgar’s closing speech was able to show that the wounds of the previous generation were the building blocks of the new generation, complimenting the devastation with a glimmer of hope in the rebuilding of an empire. The play was beautifully crafted to show the ease of transition from foolishness to full madness, and successfully showed the depths of Lear’s journey without losing its credibility.