Titus Andronicus has long born the sore bruise of critical scolding, rebuked for exciting untimely titters and uneasy guffaws from its audience at the gratuitous, nearing on pantomime, gore and gristle it serves up. However, Michael Fentiman’s debut Royal Shakespeare Company production really brings this early Shakespearean tragedy back to ruddy health, as it delights in, rather than castigates, the farce and fun that can be had with a stage heaving with mutilated corpses, as spouts of blood whistle over the heads of unwitting members of the stalls.
In fact, audience chuckles, squeals and eyes-half-covered gasps of horror punctuate the soundscape of this play quite audibly, as the original violence and bloody- mindedness of Elizabethan revenge tragedy shows its true colours with slap in the face viscerality.
A gritty world of spiky Goths, Queen Tamora (played by Katy Stephens) is the wolf skin-wearing minx, all primal tattoos and heavy eye-liner, ready to stamp under her heavy boots all the Andronici she must revenge for the murder of her son, Alarbus. A Mohawk-adorned, gleefully ruthless Aaron and her hoodlum yobs of sons, Chiron and Demetrius, then join in the game as they set to rip apart all Titus prizes, starting with the imaginatively atrocious mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia (played with helpless sensitivity by Rose Reynolds).
However Titus, bordering, at times, on a raving King Lear-like mania, is not about to be entirely swatted, fly-like, under Tamora’s fist and instead delivers one of the most adventurously gruesome tortures of revenge upon his enemy’s sons. Strung up from the heels like a butcher’s wares, their throats slashed, Lavinia attentively catches the stream of blood in a bowl clasped between her battered stumps, leaning in gently for a taste that has the audience gurgling with gallows excitement.
A Titus pounding with drums and blazing with torches of fire, this is a decidedly libido-driven, and, in so many ways, earthy, sexy production, that heartily eclipses all accusations of its feeble writing and limp tragic substance that haunted it for so many generations. Bullishly dramatic and splattered with enthralling performances from a cast committed to the play’s brutality, energy and fiery power, the RSC have more than just a squeamish saucing of blood on their hands with Titus Andronicus, but rather a terrifyingly good production that implants its horror in the imagination long after the lights have gone down on this bloody massacre.
Titus Andronicus is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 26 October.
1. Katy Stephens as Tamora and the cast of Titus Andronicus. Photo by Simon Annand.