Fanned by a couple of froth-mouthed recent news stories in the Telegraph and Daily Mail, the reputation of Lucy Bailey’s returning 2006 production of Shakespeare’s horror nasty ‘Titus Andronicus’ is such that one practically expects an evening of bona fide snuff.
As it happens, press night did see at least one audience member have a bona fide faint, while numerous distressed souls had to be led out for a sit down. As for me, dear reader – I won’t lie, I felt queasy a couple of times, and did idly wonder if I might lose my dinner over the hapless groundlings below me.
Nonetheless, Bailey’s production strikes me as the model of a socially conscious bloodbath. For the most part, she directs it as a sort of stylised (one might even say Tarantino-esque) black comedy, in which the exponentially escalating cycle of revenge that William Houston’s unstable Roman general Titus and Indira Varma’s haughty Goth queen Tamora visit upon each other is despatched with a camp relish that underscores how fundamentally stupid their actions are. Lots of extreme stuff happens along the way, from Titus hacking off his own hand to the infamous climactic pie scene. But it’s always at least semi-comic.
What’s not funny is the rape and mutilation of Titus’s sparky daughter Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) by Tamora’s sons. It’s her twitching body and vacant eyes and the thick, oily blood that pours out of her ruined mouth that scores most of the swoons, and fair enough, because it is completely terrifying, not just the blood, but the sense that she is now just the husk of a human being that was shredded as part of a conflict that she had no stake in. Bailey is quick to laugh at the warmongers, but there’s nothing funny about the civilian collateral of their actions.
Pretty gruesome, but there’s genuinely a lot to enjoy. Houston is wonderfully weird and unpredictable; Varma is charismatic and poised; Obi Abili has a fourth-wall-breaking, Bard-baiting ball as her villainous Moor lover, Aaron. And the level of thought and detail that’s gone into this most tangible of productions is gratifying: incense burns pungently throughout, a black canopy covers the roof of the yard, and there’s all sorts of weird flourishes, from an amusing kabuki theatre segment to the deployment of what I can only describe as ‘dog trumpets’ (it’s quite hard to explain).
Not for the faint-hearted, then, but far from heartless.