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FringeReview UK 2017

Titus Andronicus

RSC Barbican

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: RSC Barbican


Low Down


Blanche McIntyre’s modern-dress Titus Andronicus bookends with Coriolanus the inset retro-classic look of the two greater Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra). Each benefits in Angus Jackson’s lucid Rome season. Robert Innes Hopkins girds round the Roman arches fenestrating them, Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting lending nowhere to hide except for murderers. Tim Sutton’s angular brass music is amplified by Emma Laxton’s sound with absurd tannoy moments.


The nadir in this ‘wilderness of tigers’ of late Rome is laughter. It’s devastating. Tears can’t express it any more. Blanche McIntyre’s modern-dress Titus Andronicus bookends with Coriolanus the inset retro-classic look of the two greater Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra), but each of these in turn benefit tremendously in Angus Jackson’s lucid peel-back of rhetoric, monumentality and swirl throughout his Rome season.


Robert Innes Hopkins girds round the Roman arches fenestrating them, skirted with metal fences suggesting a gated world of no access with Malcolm Rippeth’s uniformly relentless lighting lending nowhere to hide except for murderers. Occasional trap doors are used for entrapment but overall it’s a stage swept with tables and small props swiftly shaken off. We’re not far from Occupy. Tim Sutton’s angular brass music pays dividends in slightly comic takes, a live band edging tragedy with farce amplified by Emma Laxton’s sound with absurd tannoy moments: it’s a trope this production thrives on.


Relevance gets filtered this time in a contemporary Roman look suggesting southern Europe splintering. Political carnage matches a civilisation’s chaos. Unlike the other Roman plays, there’s no system but tyranny and we’ve returned full circle to the abuses of Rome’s start.


That’s underlined in this production. Titus shares with Coriolanus as well as Julius Caesar a wild crowd’s voltage as a fresh take on Titus opening. It vivifies the first scenes written in fact by George Peele as Jonathan Bate reminds us, though Shakespeare took it in a more bloody direction than even Peele’s casual slaughters and planned rape could have envisaged.


It’s meant to be late Rome, on the verge of being sacked by Goths; Coriolanus is referenced as ancient history almost a millennia since. The crowd pulses and coalesces with banners and videos around the election of one imperial brother over another. David Troughton’s eponymous hero refuses office too, his daughter marries the second brother Bassianus and Martin Hutson’s lean near-feral Sarturninus as emperor rapidly shows ingratitude. Since Titus has refused captured Goth Tamora’s plea for clemency for her eldest son, and Saturninus marries her when Titus’ daughter chooses otherwise, there’s worse to follow.


Nowhere has the crushing similitude to Lear been made so manifest as here, and this production takes Titus far closer to internalising this than the violence it’s habitually and rightly a byword for. That’s not shirked either, but the abiding image is of incandescent suffering.


In an arc destroying all Roman values in one representative, Troughton here dismembers mentally as well as in part physically. It’s a very physical performance too, Troughton quivering with helpless rage or sudden dispatch. One highpoint has him inhabit a large cardboard box as now seen as mad, Tamora visits and taunts him unsuspecting he’s merely north north west. The image of Diogenes leaps out at you, though it’s Ovid whose literature dominates with infinite pathos in the mute Lavinia’s witness.


Titus is a military Lear, almost fifteen years before that shrunken titan of ingratitude set out on his humanizing pilgrimage. Even as early as here Shakespeare’s always alert to military rigidity.


It’s not simply Lear-like lines, or the piteous explosion round the rape and mutilation of his daughter Lavinia by the surviving vengeful sons of Tamora: ‘Had I but seen thy picture in this plight,/It would have madded me: what shall I do/Now I behold thy lively body so?’ It’s Troughton’s inhabiting the hidebound military man’s decay, a trained nature seeming to but slightly know himself or the world outside of combat. Having lost twenty-one of his twenty-five sons he honour-kills another for siding with Lavinia when she chooses Bassianus over Saturninus (Dharmesh Patel shows why he’s infinitely more sympathetic than his elder brother). When his other two sons are arraigned wrongly for Bassianus’ murder Titus’ own hand is forfeit for their feigned release, and the engine of revenges swings.


Hannah Morrish makes as much as she can of Lavinia’s proud ardent words, imparting mute eloquence thereafter; the production centres on her, Titus and his brother Marcus who discovers her. This is Patrick Drury, a Tribune too has much to do in mediating power and with a resonant voice early and late disposes of it. But it’s where he‘s forced to a lengthy speech before the raped bloodily mutilated Lavinia that produces the most terrible challenge. Drury bleaches his voice, perhaps even a shade too flat, but the unutterable horror’s clear. Purged of authority his voice speaks its inexpressibility.


Even Marcus’ empathy cannot reach Titus’ level. ‘This was thy daughter’: Marcus casts Lavinia already dead. ‘Why, Marcus, so she is’ rebukes the horrified but crucially pitying Titus. It’s his awoken humanity that strikes us, the man who not long since slew his son for crossing him.


Vengeance comes to release the narrative after much feigning, and pasties invite us to sup with horrors. There’s even an absolute sympathy between Titus and Lavinia at the very end, a kind of consent. Tom McCall the surviving brother Lucius impresses as a slightly inured vengeance seeker and there’s a new twist when he finally wins through as Emperor.


Patel’s strong in parts speaking an essential warmth, and Hutson so fine as Cassius is mean as well as lean here as Saturninus. Nia Gwynne’s consummate in slinky dissembling to Saturninus, and chilly lust for Stefan Adegbola’s Aaron; this trysting pair of murderers speak the most flowery poetry in the play. Adegbola‘s both authoritative as well as exhilaratingly unpleasant, imparting soliloquies to us as well as Tamora’s sons. His casual murders are still breathtaking even if a certain Marlovian black comedy out of The Jew of Malta hangs over them. Sean Hart and Luke McGregor make a convincingly Clockwork Orange pair of violators, particularly in their circling menace before striking. They exude gang warfare.


Mostly though the production restores the centrality of Titus’ and Lavinia’s suffering against a moral and military decay about to sweep the last vestiges of a ruined country. It’s a land where decent military advisors can no longer operate, and the only ones to thrive are corrupt. We don’t need to look far for parallels in a world where this drama’s unpredictability seems everyday news. A Titus for our times, yes but this Titus fits all times, and restores the terrible to stare back at us. It’s what we hope to avoid, which makes it essential.