This week, I was thrilled to be at the RSC for the Blog Titus event, and sat mesmerised as the players wove a blood-spattered tale from threads of revenge, duty, honour, terrorism, and - fascinatingly – high humour amidst hellish brutality. Afterwards at the Q&A, the genial, intelligent director Michael Fentiman talked easily about the development of the play. Though Titus was enormously popular in Shakespeare’s day - “a hit”, as he called it - it gradually fell out of favour, reaching a nadir in the Victorian era when it was rarely performed; and, to add insult to injury, for years the authorship and quality of writing were called into question, with some notable critics casting Titus out of the Shakespeare canon altogether. With the unprecedented brutality of the 20th century, however, Titus Andronicus became more accepted as it became more relevant. Key in this was the post war Olivier production of 1955, which reinstated the play among the first order of Shakespeare tragedies. In the midst of our 21st century wars on terror Titus now seems current, authoritative. As Fentiman observed, every play has its day, and Titus, once so denigrated, now reads like a landmark movie script.
The actress Katy Stephens talked incisively about her role as the captive Goth queen Tamora, suggesting that her cruel manoeuvrings were actually carefully plotted acts of resistance against her captors. At the beginning of the play, the victorious Titus Andronicus sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son, in spite of her pleas for clemency – an act reflected later in his own daughter Lavinia’s desperate pleas for Tamora to put a stop to her impending rape. Tamora famously refuses and gives the go-ahead for her sons to proceed with the assault. This is revenge served cold – an act so shocking and politicised that Stephens characterised it as an act of terror. Chillingly, she conjectured that Tamora may also have been raped – possibly by Titus himself. As I listened to the actress speak, I was doubly impressed with Shakespeare’s vision and humanity. Every year, untold numbers of women endure rape as an act of terror and revenge, but little is done to redress this. Through the disfigured, bloodied, Lavinia, and the radicalised, hate-filled Tamora, Shakespeare forces us to confront these issues head on. Here is a very modern morality play.
Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, is a difficult role to play, but Rose Reynolds performance powerfully captured the transformation from beautiful patrician virgin to dismembered, traumatised, wreck. In a wonderful insight into the acting process, Reynolds spoke last night about the techniques she used to portray the horror of her butchery – including lying on the ground and raising her straight legs above her shoulders so that the muscles spasmed, and she shook involuntarily. She used this muscle memory, shaking coldly throughout much of the performance. Reynolds also described a friend who had lost a finger, who experienced pain whenever she lowered her arm. Lavinia thus kept her hands raised when discovered by her uncle, Marcus – a posture so ugly, so awkward that it conveyed the roaring pain in her bloodied stumps.
When asked what he thought were the lessons of the play, the Director, Michael Fentiman, mentioned the dehumanising effects of war, particularly on Titus Andronicus himself. Stephen Boxer, who played Titus with wit and depth, reflected upon the man, whose return to Rome – and expected retirement - exacerbated the brutalities of Roman politics. Boxer discussed how the escalation of his woes led eventually to his breakdown and transformation. When asked why he laughed in the most appalling of circumstances, Titus replies that he has no more tears to cry. Once Titus passes through this breaking point into something resembling madness, Stephen Boxer plays with the text to great comic effect. At one point he raised the plastic bags holding the heads of his sons, to listen to what they were saying. Explaining this grotesquery, Boxer smiled and said, “it is actually there in the text”. And yes, I suppose it is. With such humour, you are reminded of cinematic portrayals of walking wounded from 20th century wars, carrying their own limbs, laughing. Hell must be full of laughter.
Not there for the Q and A sessions, unfortunately, was the wonderful Kevin Harvey, who played Aaron with authority and wit, suggesting again that his were acts of resistance, rather than evil. His Liverpudlian accent worked well in marking his difference from the patrician Rome in which he found himself.
Richard Durden was a masterful Marcus – genial, wise, realistic, disappointed. His key moment came on discovering the mutilated Lavinia. Marcus’ speech has frequently been cut, as many modern directors and critics found it flowery and inappropriate. As Director Michael Fentiman explained, however, the passage was kept in as the burbling mutterings of a man presented with something so shocking that no words are adequate. With the bloodied Lavinia at the front of the stage, staring incomprehendingly out at the audience, Marcus stood way behind her- one was thus transfixed by the trembling Lavinia, as the balmy words flowed over her.
Mention must also go to Ben Deery, who stepped into the role of the Emperor, Saturninus for the night, in a well judged, balanced, and at times hilarious performance. Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon were terrific as Tamora’s terrifying sons, Demetrius and Chiron – played with verve and gusto, rather like a demonic Ant and Dec. The appearance of them lurking on BMX bikes was a dark, threatening touch.
Overall, then, a delightful evening. One I will never forget. Certain things will I know stick in my mind about this highly inventive and satisfying mash-up – the unexpected invasion of the storm-troopers on the hunt, the thud of Titus’ sons’ heads being dropped on the floor, the utter sexiness of Tamora at the height of her powers, and the knife being wielded by Hal Hewetson as the Young Lucius.
Shocking? Yes. Brutal? Yes. But so is life out there in the real world. As Stephen Boxer concluded, Shakespeare, as always, holds a mirror up to us. And this time, in 2013, the vision is terrifying.
My thanks to Dean Asker and Amy Belson for organising this Blog event, and thanks to the Director and actors for giving such an interesting insight into the production of this unsettling play.