Titus Andronicus

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RSC at the Barbican

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I was expecting to be impressed by the RSC’s production of Titus Andronicus. The thought, care and attention which everyone involved puts into every one of their shows always makes them worthwhile. What I was not necessarily expecting, given the subject matter, was to enjoy it. But I did. I really, really did…

I don’t know how the rest of the Rome season has been played out – Titus was set in a vaguely modern period, with a very martial Andronici family always in uniforms (except for Uncle Marcus and his red trousers) contrasting with a more louche emperor and set of goths. The costume designer did an absolutely bravura piece of work transposing the Roman class struggle to the modern clothing choices of the characters. For example the divide between Lavinia and Tamora was brilliantly captured in the difference between what they wore to go hunting, while the misogynistic Chiron and Demetrius dressed like 70s throwbacks, or clichéd eastern European gangsters*.

The set was straightforward  – a sweep of wood leading to a set of steep stairs in the back, topped with a building structure that was half modern glass and mirrors, half Roman triumphal arch. It was surrounded by a set of railings that could double as prison or as woods as needed – simple, but very effective. And I’ve got to say the design of the Barbican means all the sightlines are superb – we were in the stalls which was a very nice upgrade for the vertiginous, overhung balcony**.

But I digress. Back to the play. I am going to assume you know the plot – mainly, it’s all pretty grim and then everyone who wasn’t already dies at the end. Even the fly. It strikes me as a slightly unusual tragedy, though, in that Titus’s downfall is nowhere near as complete as, say Othello’s. I mean he dies at the end, yes, but he dies having successfully pulled off his roaring rampage of revenge and with his son being made emperor. And although he loses a lot, he is much more in control than, say Macbeth by the end***, and it’s hard to lay all of the evils that occur at Titus’s door. I mean Lavinia’s injuries are purely because Chiron and Demetrius are just very nasty pieces of work…

One other thing this production, slightly bizarrely, managed to do was to give Titus some great parental guts. I mean, he loses several points for trying to give Lavinia to Saturninus, and, yes, a few more for killing one of his own sons, but somehow David Troughton managed to get them all back, plus a few million more, for the devastating simplicity of his affirmation of his love, when Lavinia makes it home:

Marcus: This was thy daughter

Titus: Why, Marcus, so she is

I nearly stood up and cheered.

I felt this production took a fairly even-handed view of the violence. No-one really came out of it well – even Lavinia had her moments of spite – and Titus and Tamora seemed well-matched in terms of tit-for-tat cruelty against offspring. Nia Gwynne’s Tamora transformed wonderfully from prisoner to empress, from beaten to a fabulously OTT impersonation of Revenge, via a clear ability to control Martin Hutson’s petulant man-child Saturninus by treating him like the teenager he so clearly wanted to be. Sean Hart and Luke MacGregor were so deeply unpleasant as Demetrius and Chiron –outwardly good-looking**** and inwardly completely rotten – that they made the skin crawl as soon as they appeared and you couldn’t help but feel that pie-ing was probably too good for them.

Two people really stood out for me. Firstly, Hannah Morrish’s Lavinia, running the full gamut from haughty, privileged patrician to vulnerable victim – and then on to valued daughter who manages to outwit her attackers and take full part in her downfall. Even when she had no lines, she drew the eye. The second was Joseph Adelakun who played Aaron. He was the understudy for the role, but he managed it with aplomb – the right mix of out-and-out villainy, and real affection for Tamora and his child. It just shows the level of talent the RSC can afford to burn when they can take on roles not their own and blow them out of the park.

Overall, I was left with a slightly dream-like impression – Titus’s Rome as the nightmare from which none of the inhabitants can awake. (Marcus actually says as much in the play – “If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me!”) The effect was enhanced by the fourth-wall-breaking humour – Titus sending the messenger off***** and rolling his eyes when he cycled straight over the “hole” Titus had been digging, or the extended scene where a member of the audience ended up holding the (phoney) baby about to be killed. But although the humour provided a break from the violence, it somehow made it worse – when you acknowledge the baby isn’t real then the pies, and Lavinia’s struggles, become more so. And yet it also doesn’t stop it being funny. And that’s why I enjoyed it much more than I had dared to hope.


 

* I realise this may seem like an odd thing to start with – but it was stand-out brilliant for me, and I do have the RSC’s stitch in time campaign moving costume rather more to the forefront of my brain…

** The Barbican proudly proclaims you are never more than 20m from the stage, but I swear for the King and Country cycle they were 20m vertically downwards…

*** There aren’t any geographical features conspiring against him, that’s for sure!

**** And for some reason we got to appreciate this in all its glory in a scene which appeared to be set in a day spa. For no other apparent reason than fan-service. But not, because it was Chiron and Demtrius.

***** On his “Deliveroma” bike – a lovely touch

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