Titus Andronicus at the RSC – “Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour”

Will Austin finds the RSC's new production of 'Titus Andronicus' to be an intriguing blend of gore and farce

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Image Credit: Hackney Picturehouse

I wobble and honk like a seal in high wind when I spot it. It is near the beginning of the fifth act and David Troughton’s Titus Andronicus has just toddled onto the stage inside a giant cardboard box, his one remaining hand stretched outward through a hole as he feigns madness before the empress Tamora. The same pinnipedian mirth is being exhibited by the rest of the audience, just as it has been for much of the evening. Blanche McIntyre’s new production of Titus is consistently funny, containing many such moments of bizarre humour. This is strange considering that it is also Shakespeare’s most violent, cataclysmic tragedy, exploring the beginning of imperial Rome’s decline through the story of Titus, its ideal of martial valour. McIntyre has been bold, but also faithful to the text, which unmistakably demands that the decorum of high tragedy give way to resigned, throwaway comedy. In emphasising that shift, McIntyre encourages an almost bawdy response to the defilement and bloodshed taking place onstage: similar, perhaps, to the atmosphere at the play’s first performance in 1594. Still, the absurdity lends a poignancy to Titus’ situation which is very rousing at points. It is a refreshing experience for an audience accustomed to hard silence and austere tragedy.

Elizabethan atmosphere aside, McIntyre clearly believes Titus is a play with a relevant statement to make. Aiding him commendably in that task is Robert Innes Hopkins, whose contemporary set is crucially important because of the way it structures the play’s politics. Calais-style steel fencing separates the imperial residence, with its senators and tribunes, from the plebeian wilderness downstage. At the centre of this wilderness appears the pit, which is the locus for a complex exploration of female sexuality, death, and the underworld. The play’s most beautiful and gut-wrenching language is centred around this ‘swallowing womb’ and that language demands something earthy, bloody, and wild, the anti-space to Rome and its politic pomp. The set does not deliver in that respect, with its unadorned rectangular trapdoor somewhat failing to carry the significance it requires. But that is the price to pay for the effortless contemporary feel Hopkins has achieved, which pays dividends in recasting Roman politics as an austerity era battle between conservative militarism and free market free-for-all.

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Performances are strong all-round, but the star of this production is Troughton’s Titus. The role demands a portrayal of powerful human grief, but also a dated, stylised stylised manner: Troughton finds the perfect balance (with the help of a brass band). Sean Hart and Luke MacGregor are brilliantly gauche as villainous brothers Chiron and Demetrius, and, Stefan Adegbola’s Aaron is a well-developed proto-Iago, hate-filled and motiveless.

This production is notable for the way it challenges the codes of tragedy and audience response, a technical showstopper with some great individual performances. Its run in Stratford-upon-Avon ends on the 2nd September, and then it travels to the Barbican through December and January. It generously rewards both seasoned Shakespeareans and casual theatregoers.