Blanche McIntyre directs a wickedly entertaining version of Shakespeare's murderous tragedy
Shakespeare’s gross-out revenge tragedy 'Titus Andronicus' is both gruesomely, gleeful funny and properly disturbing, and Blanche McIntyre’s thoughtful RSC production delivers on both fronts. There are great chunks that are just heart-poundingly horrible, while at other moments laughter spurts out of the audience like the plumes of stage blood.
Aside from a slightly strenuous opening – stylised protests/dance-offs between hoodies and police – its modern setting really works. McIntyre pulls attention to the undercurrents of toxic masculinity, which feel startlingly contemporary. Roman general Titus’s militaristic patriotism and old-fashioned obsession with honour prevents him making wiser or kinder choices, while the play's other prominant menfolk Chiron, Demetrius and Saturninus are over-grown, over-entitled, sexually petulant man-children. Violence may be dutiful, or it may be capricious, but it’s always unthinking, with vengeance finally descending into utter ridiculousness.
McIntyre ramps up the nastiness before that point though: the scene where Titus's twice-raped and mutilated daughter Lavinia – Hannah Morrish, exceptionally good – is revealed, trousers round her ankles and drenched in blood, is sickening. Her jerking flinches genuinely turn the stomach.
The women of ‘Titus’ aren’t exactly sweethearts, mind: while Nia Gwynne’s queen of the Goths Tamora looks visibly wretched as she hands Lavinia over to her sons, her desire to revenge the killing of her own child overwhelms that conscience. She is merciless; I could have sworn she says to them ‘see that you make her sore’ (instead of the less gross ‘sure’).
Meanwhile David Troughton’s Titus is no glorious warrior brought low: he starts as a past-it ruler, his shaking hands suggesting Parkinson’s. What is unshaken, however, is his rigid belief in maintaining the status quo. But as he descends through ever more ghastly torments, Titus is unleashed, goes wild; the final scene, in which he serves his daughter’s rapists baked in a pie to their own mother as he capers around the stage in chef’s whites, is giddily unhinged.
The production could use a little more of this maniacal energy throughout, to be honest, and there are odd moments of audience interaction that maybe worked in Stratford. But these are small complaints about a clear production, that persuasively suggests that if you build a nation on institutionalised violence, it will inevitably rot.
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The most interesting of another lacklustre season from the RSC. After the lamentablely poor King and Country cycle from a couple of years ago it is clear that Greg Doran's vision for the RSC continues to make this once great company more and more irrelevant and tiresome. Fortunately the Michelle Terry led Globe looks promising and fresh and eye catching versions of Julius Caesar at the Bridge and Antony and Cleo at the National will sweep away the cobwebs of the RSC's leaden productions of both last year.