Titus Andronicus

William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

(2003)

Review by Steve Orme

Described by director Bill Alexander as "the biggest bloodbath in Shakespeare's canon", Titus Andronicus is rarely performed, presumably because of the difficulty staging the gory, lurid scenes which are at the heart of the production.

It's sixteen years since the RSC attempted it in the Swan and 22 years since it was done on the main stage. High time, then, that it was revived, especially as Julie Taymor's 1999 film Titus starring Anthony Hopkins led to increased interest in the Bard's version.

Staff at the RSC are allegedly compiling figures of the number of people who faint or who are taken out of the auditorium during the run. One woman looked decidedly unwell towards the end of the first half on the night I was there.

That's hardly surprising when you consider Shakespeare's early revenge tragedy has on average more than five atrocities per act, or one every 97 lines.

The play begins with Roman general Titus Andronicus returning from the wars against the Goths with their queen Tamora, her sons and Moor lover Aron as captives. Titus sacrifices her eldest son to the Roman gods.

Tamora's other sons avenge their brother's death by raping and mutilating Titus's daughter Lavinia. Titus kills them and serves them in a pie to their mother at a banquet. He kills Tamora and then Lavinia to end her shame before Titus is himself wiped out.

Elements of Alexander's production are indeed shocking. The audience were uncomfortable when Lavinia had been violated. They gasped when Titus cut off his hand in the mistaken belief that the emperor would spare his two sons' lives. And they were totally taken aback at the sickening crack when Titus breaks Lavinia's neck.

But there's a feeling of anti-climax between the eye-opening episodes. With so much killing and brutality going on, there's no hero you can root for and the character-developing scenes tend to drag. The programme says the play lasts three hours - the night I attended it went on for twenty minutes longer than that.

Shakespeare tells us when people get to the height of grief they don't become angry, they laugh. This is what happens to Titus when he is confronted with the severed heads of his two sons. But David Bradley doesn't seem at ease when he gets to that stage, his laughter being neither chilling nor pained. Bradley is a stoical Titus who comes into his own only in the later stages when he is on the verge of madness.

The RSC seem to have prepared thoroughly for Titus, getting guidance from the Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Association among others. I don't know whether Eve Myles gives an authentic portrayal as Lavinia. She changes completely after her ordeal but she whimpers a lot and isn't naturally clumsy when her hands have been cut off.

The finest performance belongs to John Lloyd Fillingham as Saturninus, corrupted by power once he has been elevated to emperor, yet appearing like a little boy who's been given the run of a toy shop.

Joe Dixon makes the most of the part of the purely evil Aron and Ian Gelder is a dignified Marcus.

On the whole, though, the production lacks the sparkle and pace which would have made it unmissable rather than merely watchable.

"Titus Andronicus" runs until November 7th

Peter Lathan also reviewed this production as part of the RSC Newcastle season