The Theatreguide.London Review
Barbican Theatre Winter 2017-2018
The Royal Shakespeare Company brings to London a season of Shakespeare's four Roman plays – Coriolanus last month and now Julius Caesar, Antony And Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus in repertory through January.
Titus is a particularly challenging play for directors and actors, and Blanche McIntyre's production deserves far more admiration for how much it gets right than criticism for the small ways it falls short.
Literary critics and theatre historians have always been a little embarrassed by Titus Andronicus and prone to dismissing it as Shakespeare's unfortunate experiment with Grand Guignol excess.
To be sure, the play does have well more than its share of blood and gore, with two violent rapes, three severed hands, one severed tongue, at least four beheadings, the baking of children in a pie then served to their mother, and the almost anticlimactic stageful of dead bodies at the end.
More recently, though, sensitive directors have begun to spot connections to Shakespeare's other work that make Titus almost a first draft of King Lear.
Like Lear, Titus starts the play at the top and almost immediately experiences the worst pain he's ever had. And then the play dumps more pain on him, and more, and more, as if Shakespeare were testing how much it would take to break him.
Like Lear, Titus does eventually snap, but like Lear he uses madness as a kind of rest cure, recharging his mental and emotional batteries to come back stronger than ever.
Titus Andronicus doesn't approach the stature of King Lear, but you can sense the same sensibility at work, the young playwright – he may have been under 30 – not quite ready to translate his vision into great tragedy.
And it is with this perception that director McIntyre and actor David Troughton bring us into Titus's emotional journey.
Troughton introduces Titus as a gruff professional soldier vaguely aware that he is ageing – his hand shakes and his arthritic joints ache – and losing the power by which he has defined himself.
He meets each horror with the simple macho man's determination not to show weakness, his losing battle making him all the more human and sympathetic.
He does go mad, in a scene involving frightening hysterical laughter, but almost immediately realises that madness frees him from paralysing grief and allows him to move forward to vengeance.
David Troughton has built a career playing gruff, almost inarticulate characters, but here he brings us into the passions and sharp intelligence within. As long as the director keeps the focus on Titus and allows the actor to show us what's going on inside Titus, the play is as dramatic, engrossing and tragic as you could wish.
You felt the 'but' coming. Both McIntyre and Shakespeare himself slip up in keeping that focus on Titus. The opening scenes involve so much backstory and exposition of secondary plot lines that it takes a long time for the spotlight to find Titus.
And the director and her designer Robert Innes Hopkins have chosen modern dress, with all the irrelevant distractions that brings, from banks of microphones for the public speeches to guns and Hawaiian shirts for the bad guys.
There are some silly bits of gratuitous and irrelevant comedy, and some pointless audience involvement, that just distract from the play. A minor plot point involves some public unrest, and a choreographed opening sequence of demonstrators and cops evokes unfortunate comparisons to West Side Story.
This is not a one-man show, and several in the supporting cast offer interesting and atmosphere-enriching fresh characterisations. Nia Gwynne makes the arch-villainess less exotic and passionate, and more cold-bloodedly plotting than usual (a first draft for Lady Macbeth, perhaps), while Martin Hutson as her Emperor-husband lets us see that he is not the one who wears the trousers in that family.
Stefan Adegbola uninhibitedly milks all the moustachio-twirling nastiness in Aaron, and Patrick Drury as Titus's brother gives the play a model of sanity and ordinariness by which the others can be measured.
Keep your eyes on the title character, as this production does at its best, and there is much to hold and move you.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review