Saturday, 1 July 2017

Theatre review: Titus Andronicus (RSC / RST & Barbican)

For the most famous playwright in history, Shakespeare is surprisingly subject to the whims of fashion, or at least individual plays of his are. Having been in almost constant rotation in the repertory when I first started going to the theatre, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew have become a lot rarer, although the former did briefly become ubiquitous again a couple of years ago. On the opposite trajectory is a play you'll still find plenty of people willing to swear is Shakespeare's worst, but which has been cropping up a lot more in hit productions, and I'm yet to see a truly bad one: My first Titus Andronicus was only in 2013, on the RSC's smaller Swan stage; I think Michael Fentiman's take was one of the things that reminded people of what a crowd-pleaser it could be, and on its next Stratford outing it gets a go on the main stage as well as a limited London transfer, as part of this year's overarching Roman theme.

It's famous as the bloodiest and most violent of Shakespeare's plays but although some parts - especially those relating to Lavinia - can be genuinely upsetting, this is a gory tragedy that descends relentlessly into farce, and getting that balance right is where the secret of a successful production, like Blanche McIntyre's, lies.

Titus Andronicus (David Troughton) is a decorated general, most of whose 25 sons have died defending Rome. His latest victory was against the Goths, whose queen Tamora (Nia Gwynne) he's brought back as a prisoner along with her sons: Ignoring her pleas for mercy he sacrifices her eldest as a tribute to his own dead sons. Given the honour of choosing the next Emperor from the recently-deceased one's sons, he picks the older but clearly demented Saturninus (Martin Hutson) over the people's choice, Bassianus (Dharmesh Patel.) Saturninus' gratitude is short-lived, and after the new Emperor's offended by the Andronici he chooses Tamora as his wife, putting a woman with a bloody hatred of Titus in a position to take vicious revenge.

Though technically Robert Innes Hopkins' set is the same one used in the rest of the Roman cycle, it's almost unrecognisable from the sword-and-sandal epics playing in rep, as we're firmly in modern dress and the temple columns have been turned into a modern government building, gates keeping the angry populace away from its rulers. I love this play and McIntyre is a director with spark but after usually-reliable directors delivered a plodding pairing of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra I was still a bit nervous that everyone on this season might have had a "heritage," frankly dull house style imposed on them. Well if they have McIntyre's ignored it, and quite apart from the contemporary setting she immediately makes a statement of intent, opening with an energetic, witty five-minute dance and movement section of a restless populace protesting against their leaders, setting up an urgent, unpredictable but irreverent tone before the first line's even been spoken.

And once those lines are spoken there's barely a foot put wrong: Clearly nobody in this company would agree with those who call this Shakespeare's worst play, as they've put everything into it. None more so than Troughton himself, who plays Titus as if he's playing Lear, and convinces you he's found every bit as much complexity in him, right from the first moments when he has to steady a slight shake in his hand before making a speech. From the proud, gruff old soldier who shoots one of his own sons in cold blood for defying him, to the fake (ish) madness at the end, and most of all the explosion of grief in the middle at the rape and mutilation of Lavinia (Hannah Morrish) and the framing and execution of his sons Martius and Quintus (Tom Lorcan and David Burnett) for Bassianus' murder. Admittedly my mum cries easily at plays but she was sobbing at Troughton's outpourings of grief, not a reaction you'd normally expect of anyone at Titus Andronicus.

Troughton's domination of the play means some of the other parts that can sometimes be scene-stealing feel surprisingly understated; particularly Stefan Adegbola, who tries to humanise Aaron but loses some of the character's glee in wickedness along the way (although literature's greatest Your Mum joke still brings the house down,) and Gwynne's Tamora doesn't really embrace the character's camp insanity until she starts dressing up as the spirit of revenge for reasons that presumably made sense to her at the time.

But Hutson is on full crazy-eyed form as a worryingly topical Saturninus who manages to be a slick, soundbite-spouting politician while at the same time not even slightly disguising the fact that he's dangerously unsuited to any position of power. Titus' brother Marcus ususally comes across as a lone voice of quiet decency in the play, but Patrick Drury brings out how complicit he is in the plotting in a way I hadn't noticed so strongly before. Among the younger characters a very funny, completely bonkers scene of him yelling vaguely military-sounding gibberish makes Tom McCall particularly memorable as Titus' last surviving son Lucius, while Luke MacGregor and Sean Hart add a homoerotic edge to Tamora's idiot sons Chiron and Demetrius, vain and vicious posers straight out of a "scripted reality" show.

The most successful productions of Titus Andronicus I've seen until now have embraced the fact that its violence is so extreme it veers right off into camp. What's impressive here is how the horror and grief in the play are conveyed with utter seriousness, without losing that camp, comic hysteria of just how ludicrous all this is under the darkness.

Luke MacGregor should sue whoever approved this photo,
it does not accurately convey how buff his chest is

Troughton's will be the name on everyone's lips but this is a production that really sees McIntyre step up to a new level, to a director with a great eye for mood and detail, finding so much in the play. The RSC will have to be even more careful not to run out of Kensington Gore this time as this might be my bloodiest Titus yet† and even so, in the middle of the comic frenzy of three people arguing over which one gets to cut his own hand off‡ she brings in a moment of Robert Icke-like clinical violence that chills, only for the tension to be relieved by comedy once more; this scene also features some lovely sleight of (literal) hand. The comic moments are equally inventive - making "Marcus, look to my house" the funniest line in the play is an achievement in itself.

The fact that the dead characters occasionally return as angry ghosts made me notice how little doubling the production uses, McIntyre never filling the stage with supernumeraries as the RSC likes to do, instead focusing on the few people at the middle of the cycle of violence while still keeping an epic feel through the play's sheer operatic nature. The running time edging a little over the 3-hour mark is the one RSC indulgence I could do without but the production just about gets away with it, and with their Shakespeare productions feeling by-the-numbers lately, this is the kind of thing that justifies why I keep going back to Stratford. There was never any doubt that David Troughton is a great actor but he steps up to legendary status here, while it makes McIntyre look like a credible and downnright exciting contender for the top job whenever the Greg'n'Tony show decides to call it a day.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 2nd of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; then from the 7th of December to the 19th of January at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

†I'm not aware of anyone having fainted at today's matinee but you could hear the tell-tale sound of seats flipping up as people made a hasty escape during some of the goriest scenes

‡one of the scenes that make it hard to buy any argument that Shakespeare didn't intend this as a black comedy all along

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