Titus Andronicus

William Shakespeare
The Ninagawa Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Production photograph

The times they are a changing. Titus Andronicus, wildly popular in Will’s time, has long since been a thing unloved, left, like, mad Mrs Rochester, to rave and gibber in a distant attic, far away from polite society. That the ‘gentle’ Bard of Avon, author of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, could have penned this pitch-black, gallows-humour gorefest has been deemed in such poor taste that the only appropriate response has been to ignore it - until of late that is.

We are but halfway through the year and this is already the third production, coming as it does after the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s production in Bristol in March and now the ongoing staging at The Globe. The suggestion though that we have taken this Caliban to our collective bosom needs some qualification. The SATTF production bombed, sales-wise, so much so that the resulting deficit nearly sank the company. And there were seats aplenty here, on press night, though this might have had to do with the England v Sweden match which for watching through the fingers, sheer horror, probably outdid it.

It is in truth, a hard play to love. We might, with Prospero, acknowledge and own “this thing of darkness ours”, but we do so with reluctance and ill-grace. As Cicero had it; honesty is praised and left to shiver. The problem is not that the play lays bare our capacity for cruelty that we don’t like. Edgar’s betrayal of his father, Gloucester, in King Lear, and his subsequent blinding is at least as cruel as anything here; it is the glee with which the savagery is performed.

Ninagawa’s approach to the play, like Peter Brook before him, is to bring a degree of distance to the manifold cruelties by adopting a highly stylised approach, red ribbons standing in for the blood which begins to flow copiously from the opening scene. Titus returns to Rome, victorious in war, bringing with him, in chains, Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, and her three surviving sons.

And Ninagawa further heightens the sense of artifice by showing us the cast readying themselves to start the play as an unseen voice relays instructions such as, “Bring the wolf downstage.” The wolf in question is a monstrous Jeff Koon-like, all-white reproduction of the famous Roman statue which shows the lupine fostering of Romulus and Remus. This stands as a perfect symbol for the play itself which mixes tenderness and savagery in equal measure.

A Japanese staging of the play makes perfect sense of the unforgiving code of honour which prompts Titus to agree to the slaughter of Tamora’s youngest son in tribute to his own dead son and Tamora’s bloody revenge on the whole Titus clan. The violence too, to these ears, of the sound of the language seems appropriate also, although at times, untutored as I am admittedly, it seems to tip over into the over excitement of the sort deplored by Hamlet.

Shun Ocuri, looking like a cross between David Beckham, in one of his more frivolous re-imaginings, and a Thai lady boy, hams it up rotten as Aaron. But there is fine work too, most notably by Kotaro Yoshido as Titus, especially in the second half of the play, Haruhiko Jo as his brother Marcus, and Rei Asami as Tamora. What Yoshido beautifully brings out is how Titus, like Lear, like Othello, is driven by self-delusion to destroy himself. Honour for him is everything. He does not hesitate to kill a son he thinks has dishonoured him, even refusing at first to allow his body to be interred in the family monument. His legs buckle and he falls to the earth for the first time moments afterwards.

It is a production which has divided critics. And there is perhaps some truth in the argument that the production is a little too in thrall to a sense of style and that this can get in the way of the play proper. The use of music to ratchet up the pathos is, I thought, unnecessary, and, as in Ninagawa’s production of Pericles a few years ago, seems to suggest he does not trust his material as he ought. But there are riches a-plenty here and the production is frequently gorgeous, not least in the forest scene in which Lavinia is raped amid giant porcelain-like lilies, the loveliness of the setting at extreme odds with the savagery enacted before us. The evening ends with a directorial innovation, one which offers, finally, a note of hope and of reconciliation: young Lucius Andronicus cradles Aaron’s bastard child in his arms and howls, as with Kurtz, in Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness at “the horror, the horror, the horror”.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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