‘Brutality of the highest order’ is promised of Lucy Bailey’s Titus Andronicus, and it does not disappoint. From the opening speeches the action is relentlessly disturbing and challenges all preconceptions of Shakespearean theatre.
This 2006 revival remains bold and energetic, dragging its audience along ruthlessly through the scenes of rape, murder and mutilation. And that’s just the first half. Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy appears to begin with an ending: the celebrated general Titus Andronicus returns victorious after a decade of war, with his prisoners in tow, and only four of twenty-five sons remaining.
To avenge their deaths he kills the first-born son of his prisoner Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and thus sets in motion the cycle of murder and revenge that leaves no character unbloodied.
Titus, played by William Houston, is a grizzled war hero grieving for his dead children and wearied by the decade of fighting for the glory and honour of Rome. He is triumphant in his first entrance – carried in by procession with confetti falling and incense burning – but this initial embodiment of power is not sustained as Houston quickly shows Titus to be an exhausted man, unwilling to shoulder the power and responsibility that the Roman rabble demand from him.
Houston’s performance is certainly memorable, partly on account of the unusual delivery of his lines. At best, his cracked and rasping voice strikes notes of pain and suffering; at worst, it comes across a bit like Bane’s in The Dark Knight Rises, albeit considerably more audible. Houston’s performance comes together from the third act onwards however; what before amounted to an oddity becomes a masterstroke.
Houston is exceptional as Titus plummets deeper into despair and apparent insanity. His performance is increasingly unnerving as he doggedly seeks his revenge, playing a gruesome game of deception with Tamora. The climax comes in the final scene; Titus enters as a fantastically deranged chef, and serves Tamora a specially-baked pie, watching gleefully as she unwittingly cannibalises her two sons.
Prepare yourself for a spectacular understatement: this production is not for the faint-hearted. Those familiar with the play will expect a certain amount of gore, but perhaps not with such unsettling relish. There are some unexpected and wickedly funny moments – a character muses, stroking his chin with a severed hand, at one point – but these darkly humorous instances only make the bloody action more grotesque.
Indeed, the blood is shed so copiously at points that some patrons standing close to the stage (the ‘groundlings’ in the pit) are splattered with it. Some are visibly delighted to be so immersed in the action, others, less so. During the matinee I watched, the body count off-stage surpassed the body count on-stage, most fainting when Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) makes her mutilated entrance at the end of Act II.
She has been violently raped, her tongue cut out and both hands removed to prevent her from naming the culprits who have committed such brutality. She trembles and jerks continuously in her agony and shame: it is uncomfortably both agonising and captivating to watch.
That feeling recurs throughout this production; the audience suffers with the play’s victims as well as shares in the power and pleasure of inflicting pain. Obi Abili as Aaron the Moor brings an infectious relish to his character’s murderous mischief.
Abili gives a performance that is both horrifying and hilarious. He swaggers bare-footed across the stage, he seduces the audience with his sly smile and charisma, and brutally murders in a nonchalant fashion; he steals the show.
Titus Andronicus is outstanding perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, its graphic slaughter. Its urgency of action and unshrinking delight in violence and revenge makes this production an unforgettable, if disconcerting, experience.