Titus Andronicus has come home. Shakespeare’s gore-fest was wildly popular when first presented at the Rose in 1594, but it’s doubtful he would recognise this version any more than the archaeological site which is all that survives of the playhouse.
Director Jung Han Kim’s production, part of the Contemporary Shakespeare season taking place in England and New York City, emphasises image and theme rather than character or narrative. The result is rich in strange and striking visual effects in which the young, international cast tangle legs and arms in choreographed pain or ecstasy, often enveloped in billowing dry ice, sometimes to an accompaniment of percussive sounds. Not all of these images are illuminating and some are frankly baffling. Why, for instance, does Aaron the Moor (played by Tendai, Humphrey Sitima) sport goggles and red latex gloves? And why do members of the ensemble carry in blue buckets and spit water into them during the rape of Lavinia? Or the entire cast line up and waggle their bottoms to jazzy music? This is after handless, tongueless Lavinia has revealed her fate by indicating the story of Philomel, not in Ovid’s Metamorphoses but – a hint here at modern relevance – in scrunched up newspapers.
The text, shortened as always in the Rose’s spartan conditions, suffers from the loss of the complication of Aaron as devoted father. Playing mainly in the confined oblong space next to the original foundations, the cast retain integrity in their ensemble work, however, and individuals, especially Miranda Shrapnell as Lavinia as she undergoes the prolonged mutilation, exhibit an admirably focused concentration.