Titus Andronicus. Rape. Cannibalism. Extreme bloodshed. Hardly the recipe for a festive Christmas play. Add in some thinly veiled incest and extreme misogyny and you start to understand why Titus is seen as a problematic work of literature. Running as a series of Roman plays at the Barbican in transfer by the RSC, including Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra – this is the only one that is entirely fictional. And just as well, really.
Blanche McIntyre’s production is provocative and daring within the constraints of this play – however the modern interpretation doesn’t always hit the mark. Reflecting on the state of modern politics and the disorder of oppressed societies, we open on a dance sequence that demonstrates the state of the disenfranchised youth of a ‘modern Rome’ – not a million miles away from the 2011 UK riots. Hot on the heels of the tracksuit clad rioters are the press – camera crews running from one side of the stage to another, avoiding the selfie takers, stolen TVs and supermarket trolleys. It’s a motif that has potential but ends up on the periphery, underused and under developed.
The set is minimal (credit to the fact it is shared by the three plays in the series), a large barbed wire fence around a lectern creating the central motif of overarching power from the top is constant throughout. While the props are often gimmicky (children’s costume armour and toy bow and arrows) the costumes work well to represent the malleable and often shifting course of power.
This isn’t a play for stellar female roles – one character is literally silenced in the second act and is sentenced to stand mute for the rest of the play – a visceral reminder of the brutality of her attack, and Tamora is a manipulative, power seeking troubled character – strong, yes, but cruel, absolutely. The scene in which she hands Lavinia over to her sons is merciless, painful and gut-wrenching. That these women (who have in the opening scene been fought over and described as objects to be won) can create such torturous scenes turning against each other is not a ringing endorsement on gender parity. Lavinia’s re-emergence on stage, bloodied, beaten and with her clothes around her ankles, matted blood in her hair, silent in suffering, is perhaps the most enduring and harrowing image – brilliantly captured by Hannah Morrish.
The interval provides welcome respite and a chance for some blood to be cleared from the stage – a futile activity really if you know what’s to come. From monstrous to melodrama, the second act verges towards the extremes of black comedy with a Deliveroo inspired messenger, an oversized cardboard box from which Titus delivers part of act 5, and ham-handed audience interaction. In trying to tie the dark humour and vengeful action together too much is done where too little could have been more effective.
A feat of endurance at nearly 3 hours long, the final scene rolls to a turbulent ending with the final bodies falling in a remarkably short space of time. Look down for a second too long and there’ll be scant few characters left alive. Brace yourself for a powerful production with strong performances throughout, but one with a few too many instances of the amateur creeping in occasionally.