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Titus Andronicus review at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘jagged and macabre’

David Troughton in Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks David Troughton in Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Shakespeare’s messy and excessive early play, Titus Andronicus, poses a number of problems for directors. Tonally, it’s all over the place, at once horrific and absurd. Blanche McIntyre’s typically scrupulous production, the third instalment in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rome season, strives to be both – and succeeds.

The first quarter of the production is fairly dry and subdued. There is a sluggish, by-numbers urban preamble in which characters wield anti-austerity signs and muck about with shopping trolleys. The message is blatant: this is a play that speaks to today. Robert Innes Hopkins’ magisterial set has been caged off and the characters wear sharp suits, military dress, Barbour jackets and red trousers.

But then things shift. The violation of Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, is like an open wound in the middle of the play, a wet and fleshy puckering. McIntyre does not shy away from the play’s horrors, if anything she magnifies them. Lavinia’s protracted plea to vengeful Goth queen Tamora to spare or slay her, rather than hand her over to her sons, is painful to watch. Her uncle’s discovery of her mangled, traumatised and silenced body, soaked in blood, with her underwear around her ankles, borders on the unbearable.

Following the scene in which David Troughton’s Titus has his own hand removed, by two nurses in surgical aprons, McIntyre allows a streak of inky humour to creep in to proceedings. Laughter is a release valve; as Titus affirms before he mashes that ‘ill-favoured fly’ – sometimes it’s all one has left. There are a couple of superbly delivered visual gags – including one involving a very modern messenger.

McIntyre repeatedly asks questions about the gaze of the play and the audience – this extends to a scene of Demetrious and Chiron shirtless, torsos oiled and gleaming – and the agency of the female characters. Nia Gwynne’s Tamora is visibly conflicted, even as she sends Lavinia to her fate.

As the tone of the production becomes more jagged and macabre, Troughton’s performance also grows in size. His thirst for revenge enlivens him in new and strange ways. Stefan Adegebola invests Tamora’s lover Aaron with more than just malevolence and Hannah Morrish brings nobility to the damaged but not broken Lavinia.

By the time we reach the play’s closing cannibalistic banquet scene some of the appalling tension that characterised earlier scenes has, perhaps mercifully, been replaced by a more familiar, gruesome, cartoonish quality. The production’s grip lessens as its shocks become more about gore and arterial splatter than the obscenity of violence begetting violence.

McIntyre can be a very cerebral director but she tackles this play gusto and intelligence. The results are not unproblematic, but then this is one of Shakespeare’s most fascinatingly problematic plays and the result feels apt.

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Cerebral, contemporary and at times horrific take on one of Shakespeare’s earliest, messiest plays