(Original post at The National Student)
Titus Andronicus is not an easy play to stage. Perhaps Shakespeare’s most violent work, the play is famed for its excessive savagery; rape, mutilation, and cannibalism are so ubiquitous in Titus Andronicus that for years, many critics have derided the play for its sadism and narrative simplicity.
Difficult as it is to look past this brutality, productions of Titus Andronicus are few and far between. Yet in this latest iteration, the Royal Shakespeare Company has crafted something beautiful from this rough diamond. Revealing a depth to the play that is often overlooked, the RSC’s Titus Andronicus is at once prescient and timeless and betrays the hidden violence of dying civilisations.
As Rome lies on the brink of civil war, ageing soldier Titus Andronicus (David Troughton) returns victorious from battle to answer the public’s call for leadership. Titus refuses the throne and executes the son of captive Tamora (Nia Gwynne), Queen of the Goths, to avenge his twenty-one sons who died in the conflict between their peoples. The cycle of degradation and revenge that follows threatens to consume the once-great civilisation of Rome.
Praise is first due to David Troughton, whose performance anchors the production. Troughton takes Titus from an over-the-hill soldier, away from the battlefield in his formal military dress and lets him grow with his grief and vengeance into a towering presence on the stage.
Nia Gwynne is particularly impressive as Tamora, whose plot for revenge is complicated by the ghostly presence of her son Alarbus (Jon Tarcy). Attention must also be paid to Stefan Adegbola as Aaron; his navigation of the play’s problematic attitude towards race is subtle, and he sells Aaron’s unapologetic villainy whilst still wrenching some sympathy from the audience.
When faced with the overblown violence of Titus Andronicus, a modern audience typically finds it amusing. Watching several hundred people giggle at a man chopping off his own hand might seem like a failure, but in reality, it reveals a much more disturbing point.
Most of the play’s brutality is reminiscent of bad slasher films, but our reactions show how inured we have become to basic human suffering.
Titus Andronicus may be set in late-Imperial Rome, but this production’s quasi-modern aesthetic reflects its contemporary relevance. Director Blanche McIntyre asks her audience a series of very modern questions: what happens when our leaders can be openly corrupt and oppressive without fear of repercussions? What happens to civilisation when violence becomes the norm and no longer provokes an emotional response from either its participants or its witnesses?
Where this production excels is in its understanding of Shakespeare’s parodic take on the revenge tragedy. The events are absurd, too florid in their savagery to take any emotional hold. Yet the flattening of affect in response to this increasing barbarity is what most threatens the citizens of Rome and indeed the predominantly white middle-class audience of Titus Andronicus.
The 21st-century individual is bombarded with news of atrocities each and every day. Even when directly confronted with details of a tragedy, the true horror of the event remains unintelligible to those within a privileged and distant sphere.
The play is most damning to its audience when the foolish Saturninus (Martin Hutson), who remains oblivious to the violence that sustains his power for most of the play and counts the audience among his supporters.
When McIntyre’s production chooses to play its brutality without irony, the results are dramatically reversed. Suddenly, an audience who had laughed at a woman bleeding to death on a sun lounger is faced with the sight of a belt tightening around a new-born baby’s neck.
Instead of sniggers, there are sharp intakes of breath. The violence becomes abruptly real.
The dance sequence that makes up the pre-show depicts the class conflict that threatens the Roman Empire at the play’s outset. The sight of protesters climbing gates, clashing with police and holding signs that say “austerity kills” should be familiar to any audience member.
Though the dance is overlong, the point it attempts to make is sound; this is a society that is ultimately as violent as the war that Titus and Tamora have been waging for ten years, and the revenge that follows is not a departure from the norm, but the natural culmination of this society. The ties of family and nation are irreversibly dissolved to sustain a system that governance that only values its own continued existence.
In the hands of McIntyre and the accomplished cast, the play moves beyond its outward absurdity and becomes a chilling indictment of contemporary Western culture. When grotesque injustice becomes commonplace and victims of violence like Lavinia, Alarbus, and the Roman people are without a platform for their voices, civilisation dies. All the while, we feel nothing.