On a day when the morning papers all showed images and descriptions of bloodied, violent acts, the RSC’s new production of Titus Andronicus speaks clearly to a society which has a close relationship to violence. This is a play which demonstrates clearly the absurdity behind the eternal truth of violence begetting violence, and has become popular in recent years due to its ability to be simultaneously comic and tragedy, plugging into a cultural psyche which finds it impossible to consider human experience within the confines of simple labels.
In his début at the company, Michael Fentiman directs with a keen flair for imagery, meaning his production sears the pictures created by Shakespeare’s text onto the back of your retinas. Each picture has been clearly thought out on this elaborate, tiled set (Colin Richmond), lit sumptuously at every level by Chris Davey so that when the norm of symmetry is broken, its rupture becomes all the more apparent. I’ve not seen a director use the Swan space so effectively to make meaning out of visual cues (I almost squealed at one point when it seemed that iconic image from Three Kingdoms was being referenced).
Unfortunately, though Fentiman succeeds in his creation of visuals, a lack of pace – especially before the interval – means the potential for a charge towards the ending is never realised and for a play in which so much happens, there is rather a lot of stasis. It seems this lack of congruity is partly what Fentiman is aiming to achieve – as typified by Richmond’s ahistorical costumes – but though this is a theory which works on paper, this production doesn’t quite go far enough in its extremes to make that particular choice pay off.
This is embodied by the ensemble, who at times come close to genius but elsewhere don’t quite grasp the veracity with which Shakespeare writes. Chiron and Demetrius (Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward), for example, are here neither frustrating, comic adolescents nor gruesome young men, whilst Richard Durden’s Marcus doesn’t quite fit within the world Fentiman presents. Conversely, Stephen Boxer’s Titus is one of brute power coupled with a sharp wit and Katy Stephens is a fierce but careful Tamora, who terrifies in her scene with Rose Reynolds’ Lavinia, showing absolutely no remorse, before the latter is carried off only to return with stumps wrapped in her own hair. Kevin Harvey’s tall, imposing Aaron, however, is found at the centre of all our stories both literally and figuratively, in a performance which is somehow both nuanced and brutal.
Though we experience gore and pain during the first act, there is crucially little of the red stuff until the final few scenes of the play, ensuring we never become desensitised to violence and allowing for an extraordinary, blackly comic banquet scene in which the company see how much they can make those opposites of comedy and tragedy truly work against each other. It’s a smart piece of stagecraft which underlines this production’s suggestion that young people will only copy the violence of their elders, but I couldn’t help feeling it was somehow unearned and retrospectively left the rest of the play seem disengaged by comparison.