Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.
Faintings and walk-outs: both have been reported and, I’m happy to say, I observed both of them when it was my turn to witness the Royal Shakespeare Company’s contemporary take on the ‘Rome Season’, Titus Andronicus – “infamously bloody”, as I called it in my review for Julius Caesar & Antony and Cleopatra. And, bloody hell (mind the pun), I was not disappointed.
Saturated, practically oozing, the RSC have indulged themselves in more coagulate gore, spurting blood vessels and dripping blood-soaked cloths than you can shake a stick at. So much so, that I understand the weak-of-heart being quite disturbed. But what this Titus does so excellently is inject all the much-needed humour into the piece; wringing out (again, mind the blood pun) all the ridiculousness until the horror is almost farcical. And, yet, always expertly, a fine line is drawn between the sublime and the ridiculous. It is perfectly balanced and, in that balance, it has become one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: emotional, intense, and laugh-out-loud funny.
With the auditorium lights still up, creating an eerie community throughout the audience, we are shown the civil breakdown in Rome (but this Rome is reminiscent of the London riots). Documented on mobile phones, and fired by hooded, knife-wielding youths, signs like “austerity kills” feel blisteringly relevant. A wonderfully choreographed dance-like scene follows, with the people of Rome squaring up to armoured police as well as each other, whilst the government building (beautiful set design mirroring the the pillars and statue from the earlier Roman plays in its modernity) is caged off, a physical barrier between the people and the ruling elite.
The cast is strong. David Troughton is a wonderful Titus – truly excelling in the Lear-esque ‘mad old man’ persona in the second act. It is impossible not to learn to pity him, and Troughton shows masterful still in getting the audience to actually like him and, importantly, laugh with him. Troughton proves himself to be a fantastic comic actor – not just a dramatic one. Patrick Drury is astounding as Titus’ brother, Marcus. Drury has a natural avuncular warmth which, paired with an empathetic sensibility, portray Marcus as a man far more suited to a good book, maybe an allotment, a loving family surrounding him – but he is thrust into horrors which he only bears due to his commitment to those he loves. It is believable and agonising watching him go from father-figure to vengeful, broken man, and back again. Hannah Morrish, without a word, shows the frustrated devastation of Lavinia – and it is rightfully harrowing when Marcus finds her after her rape. Sobering. As is Tom McCall’s almost perpetually shell-shocked Lucius, only dipping briefly into raging anger.
Stefan Adegbola’s delivery of verse is an absolute joy: forceful, powerful, unforgiving and poetic. Martin Hutson uses his lean, frantic body language to great use as Emperor Saturninus and Jon Tarcy – a real delight throughout his debut season at the RSC – who hasn’t a single line, but – at beginning and end – provides careful and intensely human presence.
The modern dress gives it, even in its ridiculousness, an eerie relevance. Rape culture and ritual sacrifice are all a part of our consciousness in this modern age. Cleverly, elements of the dialogue are also delivered in such a way to match the setting with lines like, “Thanks, gentle Romans.” sounding like a modern-day nervous politician. A blue-clad messenger suiting a box backpack printed with ‘Deliveroma’ is a funny touch.
The music is wonderful, harking back to the blazoning trumpets earlier in the Rome season, but paired with haunting female vocals, and electric undercurrents and a beating bass.
As I always say, the RSC does endings like no other, and – yet again – they prove me right. In the final blackout, I released an elated gasp, which left a smile on my face that has barely faded since.
This may be the Rome Season’s triumph and – if not – Coriolanus will have to be an absolute blast of a show. Titus Andronicus is true entertainment – funny, so bloody that (at three rows back) I almost got splattered in blood, and ultimately memorable. A bloody treat. But, don’t eat the pie.