Titus Andronicus

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Barbican Theatre

Titus Andronicus (David Troughton) Credit: Helen Maybanks / RSC
Lavinia (Hannah Morrish) Credit: Helen Maybanks / RSC
Lucius (Tom McCall) and Aaron (Stefan Adegbola) Credit: Helen Maybanks / RSC

Blanche McIntyre’s twenty-first-century setting of her exciting Titus Andronicus doesn’t have to do much to emphasise its contemporary relevance.

It looks current with its T-shirts and army fatigues, the guns and the huge metal fence that opens electronically and surrounds the perimeter of the grand palace where live those who rule the country.

But what is so startling is the way Shakespeare’s play seems to fit into the present crises.

It depicts the violent blowback of imperialist adventures on a regime riven with arguments and trying to rule a disenchanted population.

The production opens with a choreographed dance fight sequence reminiscent of West Side Story between various gangs, one of which is the police.

Titus enters wearing a quaintly old style dress uniform at the head of a brass band. This is an older generation general who has loyally waged imperialist war for his country and returns with prisoners dressed in red boiler suits.

He seems to have little interest in politics, declining the proposal to make him emperor, nominating Saturninus for the role and on impulse killing his youngest son for supposedly disrespecting Saturninus.

David Troughton is riveting as the aged, naive general with a touch of King Lear about him.

Martin Hutson gives a fast, realistic performance as the paranoid, narcissistic emperor Saturninus who can one moment promise eternal gratitude to someone and the next order their execution for some imagined sleight. You just know if he had a mobile phone he would be tweeting violent absurdities across the world.

This is a strong production that never loses your attention but it does have its minor missteps.

I get the point about the messenger on a Deliveroma bicycle delivering the mail, but it seemed like a cartoon insertion that jarred with the overall approach. However that was nothing compared to the moment when Titus appears to greet visitors wearing just a cardboard box. I have no idea what that was about.

Yet there are other moments which take your breath away. The most shocking is the rape of Lavinia (Hannah Morrish).

It is hard to bear the scene in which she is pawed and pushed around by the former prisoners Chiron (Luke MacGregor) and Demetrius (Sean Heart). The extraordinary and upsetting image of her later return to the stage covered in blood with her underwear hanging from her ankles is something that you will remember for a long time.

The horror that began with an imperialist war ends by consuming even those who rule the country as Titus beheads two of the ruling family and serves them up as a meal to the emperor.

It is indeed a play for our time.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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