Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol
"Grotesque and horrible", "stupid", "most uninspired play ever written" - just some of the brickbats launched at Titus Andronicus by critics over the years.
Andrew Hilton, who directs the first production of the play in Bristol since 1978, notes wryly that the play has a "chequered history", observing that audiences from the 18th century on found the work too "violent and harsh".
But that alone is not sufficient to explain the absence of the play from the British stage until 1955 and the famous Peter Brook/Laurence Olivier production. The body count in Hamlet is higher while King Lear features one of the goriest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote, the blinding of Gloucester.
What modern audiences have difficulty with, in addition to the play's savagery, is the gallows humour that goes with it, something which filmgoers steeped in Peckinpah and Tarantino would find only too familiar but which is still discomfiting, if not downright disturbing, to a wider audience. "Handle not the theme of hands", Titus reproaches his brother and daughter as he sits nursing the bloody stump at the end of his arm, the victim of a terrible piece of deceit.
That, and the fledgling playwright's debt to Seneca which produced a play stuffed full of rhetoric, something which Elizabethan audiences, practised in listening to long sermons and speeches, had no problem with but which is Greek to modern theatregoers. It also produces, for example what, is to us, the grotesque and bizarre spectacle of Marcus Andronicus delivering a speech of 57 lines to his bloody and mutilated niece, rather than staunching her wounds.
Hilton, mindful of the play's reputation, is decorum itself, transferring the action to the 18th century and keeping the violence on stage and the gore to a minimum. Also at a premium are the props, even for SATTF which has built up a reputation for a devotion to the text first and foremost. Unfortunately, the result of this approach is to highlight both the intransigence of the text and the deficiencies of some of the major players who repeatedly swallow their words.
There are some bright performances - notably from Paul Currier as Saturninus and Philip Buck as Bassianus - but inevitably it is a play that stands, or falls, on the strength of the central protagonist and Bill Wallis ultimately fails to deliver. It's certainly a massive handicap that the role for which you are best known is a comic one, namely Mr Ploppy from Blackadder.
Given the paucity of funding this admirable company receives and its excellent track record, it would be wrong to dwell on the shortcomings. Andrew Hilton and the company are to be congratulated for giving theatregoers in the south west the chance to revisit this play after 28 years.
Reviewer: Pete Wood