Monday 20 May 2013

More Bloody Shakespeare! - Titus Andronicus Returns To The RSC

Stephen Boxer in rehearsal as Titus Andronicus

This week, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) present their latest interpretation of this, perhaps Shakespeare’s most gruesome creation. Directed by RSC newcomer Michael Fentiman the play promises to pull no punches and I caught up with Michael during the penultimate week of rehearsals to discuss his approach to the play.

One of the least performed of Shakespeare's plays, outside of the world of actors and literature scholars not many have heard of the tale, let alone know what it's about. The text has no legendary quotes of "Alas, poor Yorick" or "Romeo, Romeo" status, no fairies or ass’s heads or star-crossed lovers, to mark it out in the collective consciousness. It has probably never been studied at GCSE level, (with good reason) and if any quick image were to iconically identify the story, it would be that of a (possibly one-handed) baker, resplendent in white chef's hat, labouring over a generously filled meat pie.

The story is little more than a revenge tragedy, no different from so many of the more famous Shakespearean tales.  After all, strip Hamlet down to its bones and it is the story of an aggrieved son looking to avenge his father's murder. It is however, the audacious nature of the revenge that sets Titus Andronicus apart , with either extreme violence or the consequences of extreme violence, visually played out in every act. Whilst the play may not be for the faint hearted, it should arguably be compulsory viewing for every devotee of well told horror. The story, the roots of which stem from mythology rather than factual history, starts out with simple homicide, but goes on to  include rape, mutilation and beheadings, climaxing with one of the most disturbing acts of murderous cannibalism staged.

The play opens with Titus Andronicus, a victorious army commander returning to Rome, with Tamora , Queen of the Goths, whom he has just conquered, in chains. With the Emperor of Rome recently deceased, the public clamour for Titus to be appointed as his successor, in place of either of the former Emperor's squabbling sons. So the play begins with these two brothers having a grievance against Titus, who then slaughters one of Tamora’s sons, in front of her, as vengeance for his own sons having been killed in battle. So now Tamora is out for revenge too – and this is just in act one! Unlike much of Shakespeare's violence, where the body-count doesn't really start to rack up until well into the second half, Titus Andronicus' storyline delivers heaps of smoking flesh at a fairly consistent rate throughout. Whilst it frequently occurs that members of a Titus audience pass out due to the violence on stage, none  fall asleep from boredom.

Katy Stephens in rehearsal as Tamora

This is Fentiman's directorial debut at Stratford, so whilst he is only being let loose on one of the Bard's minor works, the RSC are still taking that initial gamble that comes with all first-timers. The young man though knows his craft and his literature well. From a historical context, whilst we may today find the extent of the play's savagery shocking, Fentiman points out that in Shakespeare's time the audience coming to the theatre would be familiar with a judicial system that amongst other things, “had criminals heads impaled on spikes on London's bridges”, to say nothing of public hangings, so violent theatre was often nothing less than expected. He also observes that, whilst the play was rarely performed after Shakespeare's death, it having being deemed too violent until Olivier and Vivien Leigh tackled it ( also at Stratford) in 1955, during Shakespeare's lifetime it remained a regular and popular feature in the repertoire.

Fentiman is under no illusion that, notwithstanding the civilised way of the modern Western World, revenge remains a key driving force in society even to this day. Whilst vengeance may no longer be meted out via a dagger or a cup of poison, one need not look too far from home to have recently seen an adulterous politician's career wrecked over the matter of some speeding points as a wronged spouse sought satisfaction. (A mere trifle, excuse the pun, when compared to the vicariously gourmet filicide that is served up by Titus to Tamora.)  And considering a global perspective too, where death through conflict remains a sad current commonplace, Fentiman also contends that many (not all) wars of the modern era have had their origins in revenge and that other than advances in military technology, little has changed since the 1500's.

Michael Fentiman in rehearsal

Not only is this challenging director knowledgable in classic literature, he is also refreshingly up to speed on modern cinema.  It is rewarding to learn that the man responsible for helming this current take on Shakespeare's bloodiest rampage includes Wes Craven (he of Freddy Krueger renown) and Lars von Trier, a Scandinavian known for distinctive and sometimes disturbingly explicit imagery, amongst his influences.

With an innovative director in charge, who has the resources of the world class RSC creative team to assist in realising his vision and talented Magic Circle member and illusionist Richard Pinner drafted in to advise on making the scenes of bloodthirsty carnage and butchery as realistic as the stage will permit, expectations for this show run high and there is an increasing likelihood that those expectations will be exceeded. Fuelling this anticipation is the RSC's own trailer, released in line with the current trend for theatre productions to have mini movie-type promos that grab ticket-selling attention via YouTube.  Industry experts Dusthouse have produced the beautifully shot, but gruesomely gory mini-featurette (link below) that plugs the play, but be warned: the 90 second film re-defines the grindhouse genre and its viewing demands a strong stomach.

Enfant terrible or visionary director ? Only this run can determine how history will regard Fentiman's take on Titus. The production is in rep until the autumn and whether you know the play well, or are simply intrigued by how a top theatre company will present high-budget on-stage slaughter, treat yourself to a trip out to Stratford and a ticket to a show that promises to be one of 2013's most intriguing as well as exciting productions.

In repertory until October 26 2013


My review of the production can be found here


RSC website for the production


  1. Great article. Raises some interesting points on the play. The modern relevance and accessibility of a show like Titus is a hot question, but I think it's a corker.

    Have you seen the production yet? Love to hear what you think of the finished product.

  2. Titus not taught at GCSE? I have taught it to several classes for English Literature GCSE and it proved to be very popular with pupils of all abilities. There was also no chance of plagiarised essays :)