Review Time: Titus Andronicus at the RSC. Arresting, harrowing, superb.

Michael Fentiman’s Titus Andronicus, is harrowing, gruesome, poignant, and farcical enough in equal measure, to illicit strong emotional responses from the audience, whilst maintaining just enough distance from reality to stimulate the intellectualisation of revenge as a concept, and the aftermath of vengeful acts both implied and depicted.

Set in an indeterminable point in history, echoes of past dictatorships from the Roman empire to Nazism, and modern political agendas like the ‘war on terrorism’, are moulded together alongside the corrupted boundaries of religion and morality. The representation of evil and benevolence are blurred: black humour coincides with atrocious acts of violence; and no persona is portrayed as either Saint or Sinner.

Fentiman’s direction successfully quantifies the horrific hyperbole of Shakespeare’s script, through a ‘Hammer-horror’ come ‘psychological thriller’ tone which is established from the off-set. The black humour is allowed to materialise without being forced (one such example includes the ludicrously hideous argument between Marcus, Titus & Lucius over who should chop off their hand in exchange for the lives of two of Titus’s sons), and it is this presence of discordant humour which made the depictions of violence more terrible, and the poignancy of loss more prevalent.

The cast of Titus portrayed the complex psychologies of morally ambivalent characters with uncompromising success.

RSC veteran Stephen Boxer (in his lead role as Titus) gave a captivating performance of a man with a violently fickle, casually stubborn disposition, emanating an astonishing conviction of sanity within Titus’ developing insanity: from his blind loyality to Rome despite the many wrongs conducted against him, to a successive disillusionment with the empire as he descends into madness.

Titus (Stephen Boxer) Lavinia (Rose Reynolds)

Titus (Stephen Boxer) Lavinia (Rose Reynolds)

Rose Reynolds (as Titus’ daughter Lavinia) exuded a fiery youthfulness and poignant integrity of mind, which made both her shame and defiance in the face of victimisation endearing.

Lavinia- Rose Reynolds

Lavinia- Rose Reynolds

Richard Goulding (as Bassianus) and Ben Deery* (as Saturninus) gave highly authentic airs of both sibling and political rivalry. Deery was particularly engrossing in his role as the fickle, brattish, yet somehow naïve dictator, easily swayed by the potent charisma of Tamora (Queen of the Goths, then Saturnine’s Empress), who governs him as she does her own sons.

Katy Stephens’ Tamora was charmingly duplicitous and sensual, yet evoked a degree of sympathy through her consecration of Tamora’s strength, pride and maternal instinct.

Katy Stephens (Tamora)

Katy Stephens (Tamora)

Tamora’s sons Chiron (Jonny Weldon) & Demetrius (Perry Millward) were played with an inexperience, ignorance, and arrogance which became stronger as the play progressed. The youthful vigour and teen lust of the characters came across very strongly, effectively portraying the final corruption of any innocence they may have had, through the violent self-corruption of their own virginity, and the forcing of Lavinia’s chastity through Aaron’s encouragement.

Kevin Harvey gave a highly impressionable performance as Aaron, (Tamora’s lover and fellow Goth). Harvey expertly defined the charismatic ambiguity of the character, as a self-determined man, who could evoke a genuine empathy despite his numerous, unashamed acts of villainy. A tormented, wronged, utterly corrupted soul, whose desperate acts inflict pain from passion, yet demonstrates the strongest unconditional love for his son. Harvey’s rendition of such a complicated character profile was outstanding.

Arresting performances; flawless stage craft; the use of prosthetics and slight of hand drew the audience in, provoking gasps and grimaces throughout, but particularly during engrossing scenes such as Lavinia’s slow re-emergence after her rape and mutilation.

The conclusive act of revenge in the final scene was enacted with a despicable yet engrossing, painful wit, descending into chaos whereby all preceding actions become fruitless. This was a shockingly successful example of how, by not trying to disguise the seemingly nonsensical nature of the atrocities, the production roots the dialogue between the characters in a terrible naturalism which can only exist within the construct they’ve created.

Within a wider context, this production poses some important questions. To what extent does retaliation lead to further escalation? Can war atrocities only be revenged through further conflict, political sanctions and interventions? To this end, Titus Andronicus has been re-staged at a highly relevant point within our own history, where acts of terrorism and civil un-rest are rife, yet we have developed a strange tolerance of depicted violence through modern media which serves to ‘normalise’ it. Therefore it feels appropriate for Shakespeare’s most bloodthirsty play to experience a resurrection, as our desensitisation sits at the relevant point whereby we are able to watch and analyse this portrayal of the self-destruction of civilisation through vengeance.

Michael Fentiman’s Titus is a well-constructed, arresting piece of theatre, which explores the philosophy of vengeance, whilst keeping the audience gripped from the very first, to the very last breath.

Five Stars.

(* Saturninus is usually played by John Hopkins who was indisposed on the night I reviewed the show).

For Further information and interesting articles about Titus Andronicus, follow the links below:

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