Titus Andronicus is hard to swallow – and not just the gruesome pie served up in the final scene. The violence it depicts is so extreme that it enters the realm of absurdity. Not only (unwitting) cannibalism, but rape, dismemberment, decapitation and torture feature prominently in a story so over-the-top that its grotesqueness can provoke laughter rather than horror. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off, but for the play to work, the black humour has to be embraced without losing the real sense of savagery behind it.
Unlike the other three tragedies in the RSC’s Rome Season, Titus Andronicus is not (however loosely) based on real historical events or people, and was written considerably earlier in Shakespeare’s career. It’s a raw, in yer face work, with wild shifts in tone, sometimes tenderly lyrical, sometimes crudely melodramatic, where it’s not easy to empathise with the bloodlust that motivates most characters. But at its heart is a Greek tragedy-style cycle of revenge that shows a highly evolved civilisation falling into utmost barbarity.
Blanche McIntyre’s modern dress production draws attention to the crimes against humanity in our own times. Robert Innes Hopkins’ design has a high security fence around a plate-glass-windowed palace, with classical columns acting as a nod to ancient origin, while a statue of a lion attacking a horse (used in other shows in the season) also suggests an empire tearing itself apart. The show starts with a choreographed prologue in which police fight hand to hand with hooded and masked citizens – an ominous sign of things to come.
Titus may have returned victorious from his long war against the Goths, with their Queen Tamora and her sons as prisoners, but after he executes her eldest son, the conflict becomes even more cruel on the home front. Turning down the chance to be the new emperor himself, the loyal but exhausted Titus nominates Saturninus, who unexpectedly chooses Tamora as his bride. This gives her, with the aid of her Moorish lover Aaron, the chance to exact a horrible vengeance on Titus’s own family, as the vicious cycle continues.
McIntyre’s full-on production certainly doesn’t shy away from the gore, with Titus’s raped and mutilated daughter Lavinia presenting a terrible sight. The scene where Titus has his own hand cut off in a vain bid to save his condemned innocent sons is difficult to watch without squirming too. But the show goes a bit bonkers after that. Of course, Titus’s grief unhinges him, and his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, but to have him wandering around in a cardboard box and, stepping down off-stage and off-script to ask members of the audience for money and a pen carries the farce too far – as does having the messenger-courier cycle on with a ‘Deliveroma’ box. The bizarreness takes over from the brutality.
Like Titus, the show loses the plot later on – and the climactic grisly banquet is apparently played just for laughs, with Titus like a demented MasterChef contestant who can’t take the pressure anymore. Afraid, perhaps, that the audience is going to chuckle at the absurdity anyway, McIntyre actually eggs us on but in so doing distances us from the human tragedy by making the atrocities of the play seem more surreal than real. However, the occasional ghostly reappearance of bloodied dead victims to take part in further murders is a powerful way of showing the relentless tit-for-tat, so that even the end of the play does not bring closure.
In an impressive performance, David Troughton plays Titus initially as a straight-backed loyal soldier, who tries to control his trembling hand that betrays PTSD, but whose body slumps as he eventually realises the empire to which he has devoted most of his life is corrupt beyond redemption. Hannah Morrish is a piteous Lavinia, literally muted by her ordeal. Martin Hutson’s Saturninus is a slick, besuited politician obsessed with power. Nia Gwynne’s strangely subdued Tamora is not hot-blooded enough for a wildcat. And as Aaron, Stefan Adegbola seems far too smooth for perhaps Shakespeare’s most outrageous villain.
Titus Andronicus is at the Barbican until January 19th. For more details, click here.