This time last week I was performing a comic version of Titus Andronicus, as part of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), which capers through all 37 plays in 97 minutes. Titus was presented as a cooking programme. I came on stage clad in an apron and a chef’s hat, wielding a large axe. “Now look,” I barked at the audience, the theme tune to The Great British Bake Off playing in the background,“when you’ve had a long day, your sons murdered, your daughter raped, her tongue cut out and her arms chopped off… well, the last thing you want to do is cook! Unless of course you cook the rapist and serve him up to his mother at a dinner party.” Thereafter I proceeded to cut the rapist’s throat, squeeze oodles of Tesco brand ketchup into a bowl supported by the limbless Lavinia, the contents of which I whisked then popped into an oven “at around 350 degrees, and forty minutes later you have the loveliest, tastiest human head pie.”
This section always got good laughs and even applause at the end, but there was always a part of me that felt slightly… I shan’t say uncomfortable exactly, but certainly ambivalent about how the subject of maiming and rape could be so easily bundled up into a comedy package and then casually consumed. The human mind, it occurred to me in those fleeting seconds after the Titus sketch, is remarkably good at consigning the most shocking acts of human cruelty to the realm of hilarity.
Our cartoon presentation, I assumed, would be a far cry from the performance of Titus Andronicus I was due to see at the RSC the following week, and yet as it turned out the two versions had more in common, tonally, than I might have imagined. Of course there were no rugby socks or ketchup bottles in sight, but there was much to laugh at, for all the right reasons, in Blanche McIntyre’s intelligent, highly-nuanced production. This is largely because her direction teases out so much of the dark farcicality inherent in Shakespeare’s notoriously ragged play. The squabble between Titus (played so masterfully by David Troughton), his brother Marcus Andronicus (another fine performance from Patrick Drury) and son Lucius (Tom McCall) as they argue over whose hand should be sacrificed in return for Titus’s sons’ lives; Titus’ descent into semi-madness as he wages tyrannous war against a house fly; Paul Dodds’ oleaginous PR man, stooped and sycophantic at the presidential microphone and the arrival of a grinning clown on a gleaming Deliveroma bicycle. Each of these examples are made more sinister by the fact they are promptly followed by acts of needless violence.
In fact Troughton’s Titus, depicted to begin with as a grizzled old war horse, turns out to be quite the accomplished clown, whether he’s playing a senescent old fool with a toy gun or as an extravagantly good-humoured old chef serving Tamora (Nia Gwynne) a pie containing the butchered remains of her abominable offspring.
But this humour – necessary and even inevitable given the play’s gory excesses – throws into darker relief those moments of unspeakable horror. The site of a raped and weeping Lavinia (Hannah Morrish), naked from the waist down, her blood soaked knickers yanked up by her traumatised uncle, feels indecent – even in the context of a theatrical event – to gaze upon. And yet it is for her mocking laughter of Tamora that Lavinia pays this heinous price.
Then there are moments when it’s hard to know how to respond at all. When Titus sinks a knife into his daughter’s stomach one is torn between horror and relief, for in the latter case we know that in one moment all unendurable pain will be dissolved. And when Tamora discovers that the pie she has been eating contains the heads of her sons, then retches over the dinner table as Titus draws out their flaccid, disintegrating faces to drive home the point, I was simultaneously appalled, delighted and amused. Appalled, of course, but amused because… well, as Shakespeare knew, there is something childishly and intrinsically amusing about the idea of a human head in a pie. And then there is the delight: delight, I think, at a stage trick successfully pulled off, but also at an act of vengeance visited so squarely upon such a diabolical woman.
Titus Andronicus is a puzzling play, at once comic and grotesque, and yet also serious and terrifying. Though fictional, the play is not to be dismissed as unreal. As Peter Heather explains in the programme, ‘the central plotline mirrors real fifth-century events.’ McIntyre, however, plays down this historicity and offers us an ultra-contemporary incarnation, thus inviting us to consider how this hyper-carnage applies to the world we inhabit now. ‘Is there any other Shakespeare drama,’ asks Jonathan Bate, ‘that speaks more vividly to an age characterised by accusations and counter-accusations of barbarism, by an internet saturated with pornography (much of it violent and abusive), by acute awareness of the prevalence of rape, by ritual beheadings in the name of empire, and by divisive arguments about the rights of certain groups or nationalities to enter or reside in a country?’
Yet if the play holds up, ‘as twere, the mirror up to nature’, that nature is both internal and external, and so demands us to question what darkness lies within. How can horror and hilarity be so easily comingled? How can we watch something so unpalatable, and yet find aspects of it so amusing? With Robert Innes Hopkins’ glass panelled citadel shimmering in the background, McIntyre’s production ends with a murderous figure looming over Tom McCall’s newly crowned Lucius, thus reminding us that in Titus Andronicus we inhabit a world where any sign of healthy vitality – whether it be in the form of female youth, optimism, leadership and, yes, even laughter – will be rapidly and brutally extinguished.
Titus Andronicus is on until 2 September 2017 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Click here for more details.