Preview Review: Titus Andronicus (The Royal Shakespeare Theatre)
Updated: Jun 10
Here we go again, Angus Jackson. Regular readers will know that my response to Jackson’s Rome season at the RSC has been quite mixed so far, and for this, the third entry and my favourite Shakespearian play, I came down to see it in person. But for this installment, director Blanche McIntyre has broken away from the traditional settings of the previous two, and set this vicious story of power and murder in a wealthy, modern, and distinctly western setting. From the first sight of the stage, it appears that she has decided to create the most overtly anti-trump production of them all.
Though I was initially anxious about this route, the design itself is slick, sophisticated and creates a strong setting for the most brutal and animalistic acts to be performed by the wealthy and powerful surrounded by splendour. The fairly modern music suites each scene and sets each tone, putting you on edge. Though some of the costumes were questionable at times, for example Titus’ military uniform (a slightly baggy camo number), others really stood out and fitted into the scene, such as those of Revenge, Murder, and Rape (a beautiful double-slit goddess-style dress, and a pair of masks made out of tights with creepy large eyes and lips stuck on).
Those masks were worn by our Gothic brothers, Demetrius (Sean Hart) and Chiron (Luke MacGregor). In a play full of villains, these two always struck me as the vilest. Hart and MacGregor really steal the show from the (strong but slightly one-note) David Troughton as Titus. They turned already disgusting characters into the very image of the playful, perverted and ruthless villains that epitomise the common idea of murderers and rapists, without dipping into Hollywood-style craziness. I felt not only on the edge of my seat watching them attack Lavinia, I found I was genuinely panicking. Nia Gwynne also puts in an incredible performance as their mother Tamora, showing a more human portrayal, centring all her action around vengeance for the death of her son. Most of the supporting cast were very strong, but I feel I need to highlight Joseph Adelakum. Now, this chap has been popping up in every production this season (which appears to be his first work with the RSC), all in minor roles, here as the quickly-disposed-of Mutius Andronicus. In each of his roles, he has comically overacted and given performances well below the standard of everyone else on stage. I want to see him do better, or not see him at all.
But it’s not the performances you should come for. It’s not the design either. It’s McIntyre’s direction. This nightmarish and often very humorous production is, from what I can tell, her doing. The direction does not give favour to either side, try too hard to make culturally relevant commentary (a Sean Spicer impression and an Andronici selfie fulfill the requirement and produce hearty laughter), or hold back in any way on the gore. In fact, more is added. A famous scene involving a basin is more extreme and violent than I have ever (and suspect will ever) see it. It’s not perfect, however. The performance starts with a slightly over choreographed rebellion of sorts, as hoodie-clad hoodlums fight with riot police officers. It feels detached from the rest of the production.
That said, it is a small complaint compared to the wonderful work on display here, in fact, most of the actual fight scenes were incredibly well choreographed. The decision to have the confrontation between the newly-wedded Lavinia and Bassianus and their Gothic foe Tamora performed so that the seemingly innocent love birds circle and bully the grieving mother adds depth to all characters involved. The production is also very darkly comic. Some of this works really well, for example the comic timing of a scene with a hand being cut off was on point and made me completely crack up. Obviously, dark humour isn’t for everyone, and it doesn’t get much darker than this, but this turned out, very unexpectedly, to be a really funny tragedy. Granted, the humour does sometimes seem a bit too much. Not in that the comedy was too black, but that a little more tension in key scenes would have done the production well.
“Titus Andronicus” is a production that completely stands out from the rest of the season. It is worth bearing in mind that what I saw was not an actual performance as such, but a preview. This means that the “real” performance on opening night tonight may have changed everything. You may go out and see it tonight, and find that the performance you see has a traditional setting, is gender reversed and has been translated into Portuguese. Who knows? If it’s anything like the performance I saw, you’re in for a real, if rather shocking, treat. Four stars.
“gorey and violent tour-de-force, not for the faint-hearted” 4