Titus Andronicus - RSC
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
21 July 2017
Director: Blanche McIntyre
Cast: David Troughton, Nia Gwynne, Hannah Morrish, Dharmesh Patel, Jon Tarcy, Sean Hart, Luke MacGregor, Stefan Adegbola, Tom McCall
Written early in his career, its authorship questioned but certainly at least shared, Titus Andronicus is not generally a highly regarded Shakespeare play. By no means as sophisticated as later works, Titus Andronicus has a mixture of comedy, bad taste, gore and a horrendous body count that would make Quentin Tarantino flinch. Behind all the blood-letting of the crude revenge drama however, the play does have a serious point to be made about a society descending into barbarism and how power corrupts the human spirit. Although we might like to think we are more advanced as a society, Blanche McIntyre's production at the RSC brilliantly reminds us that we are still really not much better than this.
The relevance to contemporary barbarism is made in the scene setting before the play even starts, and it's introduced in a brief and subtle way ('subtle' not a word that is often used in association with Titus Andronicus). Outside the fenced-in, barb-wired steps to the Capitol (the same set that is used for the production of Julius Caesar running alongside this), a few anti-austerity protesters wave their placards, a few looters run across the stage pursued by security officers and police. None of this is heavily underlined or brought up again during the play, but it sets a recognisable context for the kind of social divisions leading to unrest that takes place in Titus Andronicus.
There are certainly a few modern parallels that can be drawn in the inference of a modern power 'getting into bed' with a corrupt regime when Saturninius agrees to marry Tamora, the Queen of the Goths. "The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power" is how Shakespeare would describe it later in another Roman play Julius Caesar, and the ruthlessness that characterises Saturniunus's regime certainly strikes a division between the ruling powers and the ordinary people. That couldn't be more emphasised than in the fate of the foot-soldier like Titus Andronicus, who has sacrificed 21 sons for the ideal of the Empire. And how has he been rewarded for this? Well, there's going to be a few more sons added to the roll-call of the dead before the interval. And I'm not even going to get into how they treat nurses in the second half...
The divisions are also plainly visible in how the stage set and wire fencing separates the rabble from the ruling elite. On the steps of the Capitol, everything is stage-managed to perfection. The return of Titus from the campaign against the Goths is announced over a microphone in a smooth presenter's voice rather than the familiar military declamation, and the rule of Saturninius is all about image and presentation. Gauging the mood from one minute to the next, Saturninus is fully in control, merciful one moment and ruthless the next, seeming to give the people what they want but only after he has told them what they want, and through Twitter no doubt. There's no compassion here; it's all about holding and staying in power. And when a society gets to that level, well, barbarism not only ensues, but it becomes the new norm.
As absurd and bloodily violent as it gets, it's actually true then that there's nothing in Titus Andronicus that doesn't still take place in the world today, whether its executions, beheadings, limbs hacked off or tongues ripped out. OK, maybe being fed your own sons to eat is a little over-the-top as a revenge fantasy, but there are indeed worse things that happen in the world today in places where our governments do business, tolerating these abuses if not actually condoning them. Even with the infamous reputation that it already has, Blanche McIntyre still manages to pull a few more shocks and surprises in the RSC's Titus Andronicus, aided and abetted by some deliriously full-blooded performances from David Troughton's Titus and Nia Gwynne's Tamora. Some work well, some creatively support the underlying message, others are just wonderfully absurd and bewildering, but always gruesomely captivating and entertaining. And that's exactly how Titus Andronicus ought to be.