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Titus Andronicus by the RSC - Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Black Comedy And Violence In Shakespeare Most Gruesome Play
Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's most violent and gruesome play, has been given a 21st Century makeover by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

Discontented citizens in a current day Rome are seen waving banners calling for an end to austerity, clashing with police and taking selfies while being wheeled around in shopping trolleys.

Titus Andronicus, RSC, Blanche McIntyre director, Stratford, barbican, David Troughton
A modern, violent version of Titus Andronicus


That is just the opening gambit in this fresh, new production directed by Blanche McIntyre - the award-winning female director behind The Seagull for Headlong in theatres and, more recently, the film scriptwriter of new movie The Hippopotamus.

This modern version of Titus Andronicus is transformed into a play for our time and seems to also touch on being a satirical view of today's politicians. It plays in repertoire with Julius Caesar in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until September 2 as part of the RSC's Rome season. It moves on to London's Barbican Theatre after that from December 7 to January 19.

There's a correlation in the stage design with other Rome Season plays and the marble statue centrepiece now graces the top of a contemporary glass government building secured behind electric gates.

Titus is as action-packed as it gets - murder, maiming, rape, not to mention cannibalism. Yet, although this production is a bloodbath, McIntyre finely controls the audience with emotional sentimentality around victim Lavinia along with lashings of black humour that make the audience laugh at some of the most macabre moments.

Titus Andronicus, RSC, Blanche McIntyre director, Stratford, barbican, David Troughton
Martin Hutson (centre) is excellent as awkward politician Saturninus


It's the strong characterisations in this version that were the strongest elements for me. Rogue politician Saturninus has the awkwardness and unashamed desire for power that has been displayed so much lately by Donald Trump.

Actor Martin Hutson gives a master performance as Saturninus, playing him in a slightly nerdy way, pumping the air with his fists after being named the new emperor and delivering speeches from a podium not too did similar to that seen in the White House. His announcer even has something of US press secretary Sean Spicer about him.

He's a stark contrast to the commanding, proud Roman war hero Titus, played by the seasoned Shakespearean specialist and very watchable David Troughton. He gives a moving and very real performance of a man who has had the worst happen.

For those of you who don't know, Titus is seeking revenge for the murder of his sons and also the rape and mutilation of his daughter Lavinia by Goths who he has brutalised during wartime.

There's a particularly moving scene, when everything seems against him and Titus responds by laughing in the face of adversity. Troughton's laugh - so close to verging into tears - is one of those electric, powerful moments in theatre when you forget it's an actor on a stage.

Titus Andronicus, RSC, Blanche McIntyre director, Stratford, barbican, David Troughton
David Troughton gives a moving performance as Titus


What makes this production out of the ordinary is that there are many extra touches to this production that give it a special spark. One of those is how McIntyre has put thought into the method these characters kill in. The cowardly Saturninus has a small pistol lurking at his side while barbaric, manipulative Aaron ( a superbly disturbing turn by actor Stefan Adegbola) can stick a knife in the chest and be close enough to enjoy feeling their dying breath.

Meanwhile, devilish duo Chiron and Demetrius are cool customers. Depicted as the playboy riche, lounging by a pool when they aren't up to more dastardly deeds.

The only disappointment for me was the depiction of Queen of the Goths Tamora, played by Nia Gwynne. Tamora lacked a fierceness expected of such a dominant character and she was instead played as a somewhat passive seductress. The only scene that seemed out of kilter was when Tamora meets Titus and thinks he has gone mad. While this section showed Tamora at her boldest, in Boudicca fashion, it was also very bizarre.

Titus Andronicus, RSC, Blanche McIntyre director, Stratford, barbican, David Troughton
Demetrius and Chiron are rich playboys in this modern version

For those looking forward to a splatter of blood or two, this production may have sentiment but it doesn't shy away from the violence. While Lavinia's rape is handled respectfully off stage, there's a series of aggressive murders that make a Tarantino film look like Bambi in comparison.

The ghosts of the murdered wander eerily around stage, assisting in future killings - a stark reminder that every violent act has consequences - and Titus' famous hand-cutting scene is done clinically by two nurses with a mini electric saw cutter (and good props). It doesn't make the scene any less grotesque though.

The finale where Tamora unwittingly eats her two sons, who Titus has killed and baked into pies, has a level of high jinx about it. Titus wheels on the extravagant pies accompanied by a Mexican mariachi band. There's a sense of a wink-wink nudge-nudge between the audience and Titus until faces are pulled out of the pastry for the big reveal. It's a sensational moment.

It was back in 2011 when McIntyre won the the Critics' Circle Award for Most Promising Newcomer and although she directed for the RSC last year for The Swan's Two Noble Kinsmen, I'd say this production shows a return to her best form.

McIntyre has created a memorable and unsettlingly realistic version of Titus Andronicus before she moves on to work on The Norman Conquests at Chichester Festival Theatre. This modernised Titus is darkly thrilling and rich in black humour. You won't want to miss it.

RATING:

Titus Andronicus by The RSC
Running time: 3hrs including a 20 minute interval
Tickets from the RSC website.

ROYAL SHAKESPEARE THEATRE
STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
UNTIL 2 SEP 2017

BARBICAN THEATRE
LONDON
7 DEC 2017 - 19 JAN 2018

IN CINEMAS
BROADCAST LIVE ON 9 AUG 2017
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Why? Impressive new modern version of Titus Andronicus
When: Until September in Stratford and December - January in London
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: RSC Theatre Stratford upon Avon and the Barbican Theatre, London
Cost: From £5
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