Foreign stagings apart, Lucy Bailey’s production is the only major London revival of Titus Andronicus since 1988 and one can see why. Shakespeare’s first and most sensation-packed tragedy is an overwrought revenge drama with some good moments of comedy and poetry, written 20 years before Webster got the genre sorted out.
When Vivien Leigh played the luckless Lavinia in Peter Brook’s formalised 1950 version, using red ribbons for blood, she complained of being raped by two appalling brothers on top of the body of her murdered husband.
Miss Bailey and her designer partner William Dudley decided to go for uncompromising realism, set in a gloomy, black-shrouded ‘temple of death’, using ‘real blood’ - figuratively speaking. But Laura Rees suffers Lavinia’s horrid indignities off stage, including having her tongue cut off. And it is entirely due to her remarkable, bloodstained performance - hands severed leaving shreds of skin, her body racked by torment - that had audience members fainting at preview performances.
Alas, Dudley’s much-vaunted ‘valarium’, a PVC awning intended to darken the auditorium, failed to work at a midweek matinee, as ushers continued to hand out paper sun-hats to audience members.
What does work splendidly is Douglas Hodge’s driven portrayal of Titus, a Roman soldier home from the wars, who kills a prisoner and finds himself the confused victim of a vengeance pact conceived by Geraldine Alexander’s glamorous Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Blood answers blood until, as a giggling, triumphal chef, he presents her with cannibal pasties made from her sons’ slain bodies.
The production also makes thrilling use of Django Bates’ weird, percussive score, mostly played on immensely long wooden trumpets, plus lively crowd movement among the groundlings, while the standout performance comes from Shaun Parkes as Tamora’s Moorish lover and devilish inspiration.