Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford
Newcomers to Shakespeare's bloodiest saga of death, vengeance and misery must wonder what they are letting themselves in for as they sit through Titus Andronicus.
Seeing a Shakespeare play in the Bard's home town must be high on the list of unmissable activities for visitors, especially those from abroad. But slashed throats, mutilations, rape, hangings and cannibalism are not exactly good family entertainment. And some people with front-row seats have been worried about being splattered with fake blood.
However, Michael Fentiman's RSC directorial debut is not just one atrocity after another simply to shock the audience; the moral of the tale is that the cycle of revenge will almost certainly continue because it is passed down from generation to generation and this is graphically outlined at the end.
Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare's earlier works, is generally accepted as not having the poetic beauty of some of his later classics. But it does have relatively short speeches so that the action is continuous, sometimes at a breathlessness-inducing pace.
Fentiman's production is unstinting on violence yet it also has more than a sprinkling of humour.
Apart from that, on three occasions there is a palpable silence in the auditorium: when Titus's daughter Lavinia, who has been raped and had her tongue cut out, spells out the names of her attackers with salt; when Titus kills Lavinia "and thy shame with thee"; and when Tamora Queen of the Goths is about to eat a pie which, unbeknown to her, contains the remains of her two sons.
Fentiman is not the only one enjoying his first association with the RSC. No fewer than ten actors are performing in Stratford for the first time and there is some excellent talent on offer.
Rose Reynolds as Lavinia may not be totally convincing when she pleads to be exempt from her rape ordeal but she is pitifully vulnerable as a ravished mute.
Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward as Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius bring drive, energy and a vicious streak to the production. They are also suspended upside down for a worryingly long time before their throats are mercilessly cut.
As for more experienced actors, Stephen Boxer is excellent as Titus, changing from a ruthless warrior into a man resigned to take revenge on those who have wronged him.
Katy Stephens is sensual and scheming as Tamora, being particularly impressive when her eldest son is sacrificed; John Hopkins, best known as Sgt Dan Scott in Midsomer Murders, portrays new emperor Saturninus as slightly deranged with a wry smile; Richard Durden is statesmanlike as Titus's brother Marcus; and Kevin Harvey is particularly evil as Tamora's lover Aaron yet shows a touching tenderness for his new-born son.
The play ends in a gory, incredibly bloody massacre, with Titus laughing at the carnage before breathing his last.
Titus Andronicus may not be many people’s favourite Shakespeare play. But Fentiman offers an ingeniously staged production with commendable acting at a pace which never slackens during its two-and-a-half hour duration.
The play might not appear particularly enticing but the enthusiastic applause at the end signalled that any doubters in the audience were totally won over by the quality of this production.
Reviewer: Steve Orme