REVIEW: Titus Andronicus at RSC

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David Troughton as Titus, left; and Lavinia (Hannah Morrish) is attacked

Steve Sutherland reviews Titus Andronicus which runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 2nd September

TRUTH be told, when the RSC announced some while back that it was committing itself to a run of the Bard’s Roman plays you’d have been hard pushed to find anyone tossing their hats into the air with glee.

For these Caesar-y works are mainly ornery things, wordy, clumsily constructed, extremely long-winded, often pompous, sometimes sombrely statuesque, and, at their very worst, accidentally absurd. A trepidatious welcome then, some way into the season, to Titus Andronicus.

It’s more fun than its recent companions, the lumpen Julius Caesar, and stolid Anthony and Cleopatra, but that’s mainly due to its insatiable appetite for amputation and exultant turn to cannibalism. Nasty stuff aside though, it’s inescapably one of Shakespeare’s earliest efforts and, as such, a pretty naïve and mechanical piece of writing never quite the full quid when measured against any of his later classics.

A revenge tragedy pilfered and patched together from many a dusty ancient source, it’s full of, well, OTT revenge and, quite frankly, not a lot else. Left alone to inhabit a traditional treatment, it’s a bit of a melodramatic monstrosity played hammily for the masses. But our RSC version finds director Blanche McIntyre making a bold but ultimately misguided bid to imbue it with some semblance of contemporary relevance so lots of geezers rush around in hoodies, TV cameramen hustle and bustle, chavs take selfies, that kind of thing. All of which is doubtless well-intentioned but actually it feels like so much window-dressing just to rid us of those tiresome togas.

There’s no sustained commitment to modernisation and, as such, it tends to flicker somewhat half-heartedly, creating an awkward and not entirely welcome melange of the stiff, blustering trad — as embodied quite marvellously by David Troughton’s irritatingly noble Titus — and the opportunistic, amoral new — as played with unpleasantly queasy intensity by the excellent Martin Hutson as Saturninus.

The way the two rivals are so diametrically portrayed is presumably meant to show how they inhabit very different, changing worlds but the way it pans out, it actually feels like they’re performing in completely separate plays. Weird! As is the audience response as the plot staggers from one shocking set piece to another, one moment almost farcical, the next ultraviolent. There are whispers in the interval that some audience members fell faint at all the blood-letting but these very same scenes drew loud titters elsewhere in the crowd.

Only the scene where Hannah Morrish’s Lavinia is discovered, raped and with her hands and tongue removed, knickers draped round her ankles, delivers a horror that transcends the theatrical. And, again, weirdly, the imagined threat of slaughter to the newborn, bastard son of Stefan Adegbola’s rampantly devilish Aaron delivers more shivers than the nurses actually slicing off Titus’ hand before our very eyes.

As already mentioned, this is the work of a young writer playing to the gallery, often at the expense of both character and plot. Shakespeare lays it on thick and then thicker, and is not averse to a spot of artistic skulduggery if it will get him applause.

Much like Robert Rodriguez who, several centuries later transformed his From Dusk Till Dawn from a psycho thriller into a vampire movie halfway through when he felt the audience might be getting bored, so the first half of Titus is doggedly tragic only for the second half to go completely bats.

We take it, for instance, that the inexplicably risen, gore-soaked walking dead are meant to symbolise how vengeance can inspire even the most impeded and frail to grossly unspeakable feats and that the morals, if there are any, are that people should matter more than principles, forgiveness might occasionally avert disaster and that violence doesn’t always pay.

But all of this is not made clear as the action ploughs obviously on. This is a play full of whens, not ifs. There’s no subtlety here, so plaudits throughout to the cast who, to a butchered man and maid, do sterling stuff with the material, but I’m sure the whole ensemble know this is not one of the greats.

Time soon, methinks, for the Roman Empire to fall for a second time and for the RSC to venture into verdant pastures new.