- Titus Andronicus
There is something both disturbing and strangely exhilarating about gratuitous violence in the theater. In the Swan, the anticipation was tangible. Signs on the doors into the auditorium warned that this production “contains scenes of graphic violence.” A young woman in the row in front of me spoke excitedly about the prospect of getting “splattered with blood.” An RSC shop assistant warned me during the interval about the bloodbath that was to conclude the second half.
Michael Fentiman’s production of Titus Andronicuswas set in a post-modern fusion of classical Rome, fascist Italy and modern Britain. Institutions loomed large: the set evoked an abbey, with its mosaic floor and its Gothic windows, and a Roman eagle design was emblazoned across a black curtain. In a pre-show sequence, a trio of nurse-like nuns silently [End Page 545]washed three corpses, while the opening scene established that the Roman Tribunes belonged to some kind of priest-like order. Saturninus was a militaristic blackshirt, and Bassianus wore a fashionable grey suit; both sported Roman eagle armbands as they addressed the audience from the balcony at the back of the stage, casting us as citizens of Rome. Stephen Boxer’s Titus, meanwhile, sat on the stage beneath them amid the corpses of his sons, withdrawn from politics and stained with battle.
Characters saluted one another in this world with a clenched fist—one of the production’s first indications that it was set in a society based on the public display of strength. This helped to explain Titus’s willingness to throw his weight behind Saturninus’s claim to power despite the fact that the latter was clearly a dangerous megalomaniac: John Hopkins’s Saturninus hungrily undressed Lavinia’s shoulders only seconds after being made Emperor, and when he chastised her for leaving him “like a churl” (1.1.482), his intense, barely-suppressed mania provoked audience laughter. Later on in the play, we saw that this Emperor wore his crown even in the bath.
The production trod a difficult line between comedy and horror. Some moments were both funny and awful: Kevin Harvey’s Aaron played at puppetry with Titus’s severed hand; a zany, goggled messenger (Ben Deery) delivered the heads of Titus’s sons in a pram; at the start of the second half, the handless Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) attempted to peel and eat a boiled egg. The production’s presentation of the Clown exemplified this uneasy mix of horror and comedy: Dwane Walcott’s Clown had evidently been blinded in an accident, or perhaps an attack, which had left his face heavily scarred, and this piteous figure of fun was hanged on stage.
As in most productions of this play, some moments were deeply unpleasant to watch. Following her rape and mutilation, the stumps of Lavinia’s arms were bound with her own shorn hair, now matted with blood. The scene in which she was reunited with her father and brother was painful: the actors’ bodies were tense and restricted in movement, making no contact at all with one another until Titus’s line, “O, what a sympathy of woe is this” (3.1.148)—at which point he touched Lavinia’s shoulders, and she flinched. Aaron’s murder of the Nurse was particularly brutal; after an initial blow he stabbed her a second time, needlessly, in the crotch, to gasps from the audience. Both the Nurse and Bassianus took some time to die, putting me in mind of the protracted agony of Tim Roth’s character Mr. Orange in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs(1992). [End Page...