Given the price of theater tickets, it’s not uncommon to depend on reviews to help make your decisions. In my case, living just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, I get tickets for all the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Shakespeare plays, and many, if not most, of the other plays they perform. (Though after having been disappointed by a number of plays in the Swan Theatre, where they present works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well as recent plays, I’ve decided to sit out a number of them.) Many people trust the opinions of theater critics, perhaps more so than, say, movie or book critics, because of that cost.
But we buy tickets well in advance in order to get good seats, and often all we know about a play is who is directing it; in some cases, we know who the lead actors are. With the current Macbeth, which opened this week, the play was announced (if I recall correctly) last September, with tickets sold starting in October, so we essentially trust the RSC to put on good productions.
And this one is essentially sold out; you may find the occasional return, but the draw of Christopher Eccleston in the lead role and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth was enough to provide the best sales the RSC has had, most likely, since another ex Doctor Who (David Tennant) played Richard II in 2013.
When previews started for Macbeth, I heard some distressing comments from some RSC-loving acquaintances: people who are generally upbeat about all RSC productions were very down on this play. Some greatly disliked it, and others felt it was weak overall. The press hasn’t been very kind; press night was Tuesday, and good reviews are scarce, with the majority coming in – on the standard scale of five stars – at two or three stars. I don’t recall seeing so many negative reviews of an RSC show since the 2016 production of The Two Noble Kinsmen.
At the same time, the National Theatre in London is running its own Macbeth (it turns out the play is on the GCSE curriculum in the UK this year, which explains why there were so many teenagers in school uniforms at the theater last night) which has also been savaged.
Of the four big plays – the others being Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello – this one is my least favorite. I’ve often found it a bit confusing, and it’s a very subtle balance to get a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that work well together. For example, a version with Kenneth Branagh that was broadcast to cinemas in 2013 was visceral and powerful, but I didn’t care for Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth (curiously, another Doctor Who alumnus).
The following are recently discovered quotes from interviews that William Shakespeare conducted while promoting various plays, in which he speaks candidly about writing, life, love, and even battling the common cold.
“We don’t call it Stratford-Upon-Avon. We just say ‘Stratford.’ I don’t know why anyone would think we’d get so technical. It’s like saying ‘Manhattan of New York.’ ”
He’s right. I live just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, and no-one here calls it by that name, unless they’re reciting their address. However, since there’s a Stratford in London, if you are in the capital, and you say “I’m going to Stratford,” it would be interpreted as that local area.
Curiously, the town is Stratford-upon-Avon, but the district – the larger area around Stratford for administrative and representative purposes – is Stratford-on-Avon.
Oh, and they don’t capitalize the “upon” or “on,” so the New Yorker made a small mistake there.
And you wouldn’t say Manhattan of New York, you’d say, Manhattan-on-Hudson. There are towns with names like that (Hastings-on-Hudson, for example), so the humor kind of falls flat.
I’ve long been a fan of Ian McKellan – the serious actor, not the Gandalf or X-Men character (though I thought he was great as Gandalf) – and when I heard he was performing King Lear at the small Minerva Theatre in Chichester, I made sure to get tickets. As often with the theater in the UK, this involves taking out a membership to be able to buy tickets before they go on sale to the general public. (We have memberships currently at four theaters, alas.) I was able to get front row seats for this short run of about five weeks.
Expectations have a great influence on how one appreciates an event, and one is at times disappointed, because the ideas one has in the mind exceed the actual event. This was not the case with this production of King Lear.
The theater itself is one of the key elements to this production. Small, with just 280 seats, and with a thrust stage, there are only seven rows, so even if you’re in the last row you’re not far from the stage. This means the actors don’t have to project their voices very much; their tone can be more conversational. Watching this performance from the front row was like having King Lear in one’s living room; albeit a large living room. The stage itself was a circle, about 25 feet in diameter, and about a foot high; this meant that the actors were at the same level as the audience. Covered with a red carpet for the first part of the performance, it was a stark chalky white for the second part.
Lear opens with a brief scene where Gloucester is talking with Kent, and introduces his bastard son Edmund. It then switches to the scene that sets everything in motion, where Lear splits up his kingdom among his three daughters. The characters in modern dress enter with pomp and music, all of them singing in praise for the great King Lear. The wall behind the stage opens to show a huge painting of Lear, and a lectern is installed, where the king speaks. A large desk brought onto the stage for him to use dividing his lands on a map (with scissors).
I first saw the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of Titus Andronicus in July. (Here’s my review.) Last night, I saw the production for the fourth time. Of the three Shakespeare plays currently running in Stratford – the other two are Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) – this is by far the most interesting, and the most accomplished.
This is a staggering production, with extraordinary acting, notably by David Troughton (Titus), Martin Huston (Saturnius), and Hannah Morrish (Lavinia). Last night, I was in the front row, center, by the vom on the right, and had a close up of some of Lavinia’s most moving moments in the play, such as when she is begging Tamora to keep her sons from raping her, then begging to be killed. Or when she comes back on stage and Titus sees her for the first time. Both when speaking and when totally silent (Lavinia has her tongue cut out), Morrish is very impressive.
While all three of these actors are excellent, I think I have been most impressed by Stefan Adegbola as Aaron. He is a conniving, sweet-talking man, yet, in his two big speeches near the end – when captured by the Goths, then when sentenced to a cruel and painful death – shows that he is evil incarnate. I would love to see Adegbola in more roles at the RSC; or in almost anything. He is able to perfectly represent this complex character with grace and charm, but can be as evil as sin when needed.
But Titus is a difficult play. It’s violent and bloody, excessively so. The RSC plays up the gory elements of the production, and, as such, has suffered commercially. The last two times I saw the play – last night, and last Wednesday – the entire upper circle was closed off, and there were plenty of empty seats on the sides in the stalls, and in the circle. They’re running this show at maybe two thirds capacity, which, to be honest, is a failure.
Last Wednesday, I got to talking with two American tourists who were sitting behind me. They had read in the Guardian that people were fainting or getting sick at every performance. It’s almost as though that element of the review may have attracted them to the play, but this also repels a lot of people. In four performances, I’ve seen a few people walk out, but I haven’t seen anyone faint or vomit. People may gasp and cringe, but to be honest, the 2013 production in the Swan Theatre had more of an effect on audiences. (I know there have been fainters and vomiters, however, at some performances, just not as many as the press would lead you to believe.)
It’s hard to know how to best approach this play. It’s much tamer than an episode of Game of Thrones, but seeing (fake) blood is very different when it’s in person, especially if you’re close to the stage. You get drawn into a production like this, and your suspension of disbelief makes it seem more real than when you see it on television. Would more people see this play if it were less graphically bloody? Would it still be Titus Andronicus if it weren’t so bloody? After all, aside from the run-of-the-mill killings, one woman is raped, her tongue cut out and her hands cut off; her father sacrifices his hand to ransom his two sons, but that hand, and the heads of the sons, are returned to him in scorn; and Titus kills Tamora’s two sons, cooks them in a pie, and serves them up in a macabre final feast that sees four dead. It’s hard to tone that down.
I consider Titus Andronicus to be one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays; it’s not up there with Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, but it’s a powerful revenge tragedy that examines the escalation of violence until it reaches a paroxysm. It’s over the top, and if you know the play, you are prepared. But most people don’t go to the theater expecting that kind of violence.
Titus Andronicus is an important part of the Shakespearean canon, but is a difficult play. With excellent actors and direction, it can be very powerful, but it is also very risky. I think the RSC has done a great job with this production, and, while I understand why some people don’t want to see it, it remains on of Shakespeare’s strongest statements about the perils of revenge and its escalation.
(I was so inspired by the 2013 production of Titus Andronicus, that I chose Titus as the name for a cat I got later that year. Here’s a photo of him.)
There’s something about Titus Andronicus that attracts me. Not the bloody parts, though it is the bloodiest Shakespeare play. But the complex schemes of revenge that weave in and out of the play. Tamora, the Goth queen, wants revenge on Titus for having killed one of her sons. When Tamora’s sons rape and maim Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, he wants revenge on them, and their mother. And Aaron wants revenge on everyone.
It’s easy to just watch this play and be mesmerized by the violence; it’s a sort of Game of Thrones on stage. And the language isn’t the best of the Shakespeare plays; he didn’t even write it all, but collaborated, most likely, with George Peele. It’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and it fits in a context of the very popular revenge tragedy of the time. To a society where torture and public execution were commonplace, a couple dozen violent deaths in a play was no biggie.
As the RSC says on its website:
TITUS ANDRONICUS Shakespeare’s bloodiest play …
CONTAINS SMOKE EFFECTS, GUNSHOTS, SEXUAL CONTENT, WITH VIOLENT AND POTENTIALLY DISTRESSING SCENES.
The current production is directed by Blanche McIntyre, who directed The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Swan Theatre last year, a production that got (in my opinion unjustified) poor reviews. With David Troughton as Titus Andronicus, Nia Gwynne as Tamora, Martin Huston as Saturninus, and Hannah Morrish, this is a very strong production. Yet it’s not without its faults.
To start with, the show belongs to David Troughton. Having seen him as the brilliantly pathetic Gloucester in last year’s King Lear, I was looking forward to seeing him in a lead role. And he commands the stage, from beginning to end. When he returns to Rome, he looks a bit farcical, in his Salvation Army-type uniform, and with his right hand shaking, he is visibly old and past his prime. As the play progresses, he becomes more and more Learish – yes, I would love to see Troughton play that part – as his despair becomes single-pointed folly aiming at revenge. His performance is memorable, and no matter what you think of the rest of the play, it’s worth seeing him in this role.
For this production is far from perfect. It opens with a somewhat pointless West Side Story type dance routine, pitting protesters against riot police, which doesn’t add anything to the story, and is quickly forgotten. (This is a modern dress production, unlike the two other Rome plays, which are full toga.) McIntyre oscillates between very serious scenes, full of pathos, and some farcical elements that seem like ideas that someone sketched out on a napkin, and decided to keep. For example, Titus in a Beckettian cardboard box when Tamora is pretending to be “Revenge,” in the second half of the play, just seems ludicrous. As does the “Deliveroma” guy on a bicycle, who brings a note to the emperor, along with pigeons that are in a hot-pack on his back. Or the scene when Aaron, Chiron, and Demetrius are sunning themselves on an imaginary beach. There’s even an attempt at comedy, when Titus asks a man in the front row if he has any money, or someone a couple of rows back, by one of the voms, if he has a pen and paper. This is not a comedy, and it’s a bit confusing to see scenes that attempt to portray it as such.
Even some of the more poignant scenes miss the mark. The scene when Marcus Andronicus discovers his niece Lavinia after she has been raped and maimed is one that should be very moving. It starts out that way; she comes onstage with her panties and pants around her ankles, her body covered with blood, and her part in the scene is exemplary. But Patrick Drury, who plays Marcus, speaks like an actor in a pantomime, and breaks the magic.
In spite of these reservations, this is an excellent production. Martin Huston as Saturnius shows the same cutthroat brilliance as he did as Cassius in Julius Caesar. Hannah Morrish as Lavinia is excellent throughout, first as a sort of Ivanka Trump character, then, after she is assaulted, even mute she is very expressive. Nia Gwynne’s Tamora is full of guile and wit.
And Stefan Adegbola as Aaron… What a wonderful performance. The role of Aaron is an extraordinary one. As a proto-Iago, Aaron is not subtle; there are no handkerchiefs, but direct suggestions about how Chiron and Demetrius can find Lavinia and rape her. His hatred for the world is obvious, notably in his final lines (which occur just before Lucius’s lines that end the play):
O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb? I am no baby, I, that with base prayers I should repent the evils I have done: Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did Would I perform, if I might have my will; If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.
And then there’s the blood… The RSC does go out of its way to highlight the bloody nature of this play, and the violence is a bit excessive. But it doesn’t have the shock factor that the 2013 production had when Rose Reynolds as Lavinia came on stage for the first time after she was assaulted. From my review in 2013, after seeing the production a second time:
“But the star of this production is Rose Reynolds, whose portrayal of Lavinia – Titus’ daughter, who’s hands and tongue are lopped off – is breathtaking. Having already seen the production once, I was prepared for the moment when Lavinia’s wounds are seen for the first time. She lies huddled in the center of the stage, her back to the audience, then slowly rises and turns in silence to face the spectators, and her uncle, Marcus Andronicus, standing downstage.
“At this moment, Lavinia opens her mouth and blood flows down her chin, and she stands there helpless. Some gasps break the silence in the audience at this point. This is a moment of utter despair for Lavinia, and Reynolds plays this perfectly. From this point on in the play, the way Reynolds walks, moves, holds her body is different; she has become this tortured creature.”
That, for me, was the defining moment of the 2013 production, and nothing in the current staging comes close.
The play is a bit long – just under three hours, plus a twenty minute intermission – and the second half, which features more of the farcical moments, feels weaker than the first. But overall it’s excellent, and the audience last night gave the cast – particularly David Troughton – rapturous applause. This is a fine production, just short of excellent, and should not be missed, either on stage or in the cinema.