Thoughts on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus

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.)

Theater Review: Titus Andronicus, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

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:

PLEASE NOTE:

TITUS ANDRONICUS Shakespeare’s bloodiest play …

CONTAINS SMOKE EFFECTS, GUNSHOTS, SEXUAL CONTENT, WITH VIOLENT AND POTENTIALLY DISTRESSING SCENES.

The RSC is presenting Titus Andronicus as part of its Rome season, together with Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus (the latter opens in September. While this play is said to be rarely performed, this is actually the second time in four years that the RSC has mounted it. (Here’s my review and account of a discussion with the director and some of the actors from 2013.)

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.

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(Photos by Helen Maybanks ©RSC)

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.

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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.

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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.

Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Bob Dylan: Conor McPherson on writing the musical – BBC News

Imagine you are approached by one of the world’s most famous musicians and asked to create a show using their songs.

But there is a problem. You’ve never written a musical before.

That was the challenge facing the Irish playwright Conor McPherson, when he was contacted by none other than Bob Dylan’s management company.

The writer, who is best known for his critically acclaimed play The Weir, says he was “puzzled” and has no idea why he was approached.

“And I don’t really want to know,” he adds.

I look forward to this. I have tickets for September.

Source: Bob Dylan: Conor McPherson on writing the musical – BBC News

King and Corporation – Illuminations Media

On Wednesday night BBC Two broadcast Rupert Goold’s film of King Charles III with a script by Mike Bartlett. It is on BBC iPlayer for the next four weeks, and if you watch nothing else in that time, make time for this. It’s a wonderful 90 minutes of beautifully achieved, bold, provocative, innovative, smartly subversive television, with a glorious performance from the late Tim Pigott-Smith at its heart. The plaudits have poured in, as I have little doubt they will continue to, and among the thoughtful press responses perhaps the most thoughtful is that by Mark Lawson for the Guardian. (Perhaps the most bizarre is ‘The BBC’s King Charles III inevitably contained plenty of howlers’ for – surprise! – the Mail, although treating the fantasy as a docu-drama is some kind of compliment.) Apart from expressing close-to-boundless enthusiasm for the film, I want here just to add a couple of thoughts about its status as television.

I watched this last night, and it’s the best thing I’ve seen on television in a long time. It’s a 90-minute adaptation of a play about when the current queen dies and Charles becomes king. It’s full of Shakespearean intrigue, and the language is a nod to Shakespeare, with blank verse, iambic pentameter, and some odd word order at times. But interestingly, it took me a while to notice the language; I think many viewers won’t even spot it, they’ll just think it’s a bit weird. (You know, the royals speaking funny…)

This article, by John Wyver, who produces films and filmed theater productions, examines how subversive this production is. And when you think about it, he’s right; there are many layers around this film, from the subject matter to the language, to the context of it being produced and broadcast on the BBC.

If you’re in the UK, watch this: it’s on the iPlayer for a few weeks.

Source: King and Corporation – Illuminations Media

Theater Review – Antony and Cleopatra, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Together with a new production of Julius Caesar, the RSC has started a run of Antony and Cleopatra. Much of the same cast is present in both plays (and will also be in Titus Andronicus, later this year), and the title roles are played by Anthony Byrne and Josette Simon. Using many of the same set elements and wardrobe, these two plays are of a piece, both in design and direction. Here, Iqbal Khan, who brought us 2015’s visceral Othello, takes the helm.

As much as I loved Julius Caesar, I was bored by Antony and Cleopatra. The first part of the production seemed aimless, with no solid direction in the plot. It was very hard to follow, in part because of Josette Simon’s strange delivery, but also because the various actors seemed to be trying to do very different things. Simon seemed to be acting like someone in a silent movie, but with words. Her speech was stilted, her gestures overdone, and it wasn’t clear whether this was meant to portray Cleopatra as somehow crazy, or whether it was just a mannered way of performing.

Anthony Byrne, however, was the star of the show. I’ve seen him for several years in the history plays, and recently as a wonderful Kent in last year’s King Lear, and it’s great to see this actor in a starring role. Byrne, while not young, is an actor with quite a future. He can be powerful and sensitive, with excellent movement, and he commands attention. His only problem is that his booming voice sometimes dominates the other actors, who project much less.

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(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)

The second part of this long production – three hours, plus a twenty minute intermission – is a bit more focused, but the struggles between Antony and Octavius Caesar seem trivial. Things are confusing, and Octavius Caesar, played by Ben Allen, is unconvincing, and doesn’t seem like a leader, but more like an angry child.

Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus is one of the highlights of the show. I felt his Julius Caesar was a bit over the top, but here he is more restrained. His cockney accent may not have been necessary, but he projects more power in this play than he did in Julius Caesar.

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The sets and lighting were magnificent, far more interesting than in Julius Caesar, but the beginning of the production was marred by a VERY LOUD, uninteresting dance piece. I don’t know why, but RSC productions use this technique often, and this type of dance number generally adds nothing to the production. The music doesn’t need to be that loud; the theater is quite small.

The ending, where Cleopatra has herself bitten by an asp, falls flat. Josette Simon’s over-the-top acting and the way she manipulates the small rubber snake just aren’t believable. This seems to be a trend at some RSC productions recently. Even some excellent productions – such as the 2015 Othello, or last year’s King Lear – drop the ball in the climactic scene.

In the end, this is a beautiful production, but it is muddled by trying to do too much, and by Josette Simon’s odd acting. I’ll see it again, to see if I was wrong, or to see if the production tightens up, but this is one of the more disappointing Shakespeare plays I’ve seen at the RSC. I don’t expect every one of their Shakespeare productions to be excellent, and this one made me feel the way I did seeing last year’s Cymbeline.

Theater Review – Julius Caesar, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Julius Caesar holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Shakespeare play I read, back in high school, and its many memorable lines ignited my love for Shakespeare’s language. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as part of the current Rome season (together with Antony and Cleopatra), and the production I saw was wonderful. I saw a preview performance on March 16, and I can’t help but think that the RSC should have had a performance the day before – the Ides of March – but did not have one.

Julius Caesar is about politics, ambition, honor, and the consequences of taking radical actions. You’re probably aware that the title character doesn’t live to the end of the play; in some ways, this work could be entitled Marcus Brutus, but Caesar was certainly the more famous man.

The play opens in a stark, empty set, Roman with influences from Albert Speer, where there are some steps, columns, and lions toward the back of the stage. The RSC has gone full toga here; this is no modern dress production, transported to some setting where one needs to imagine how a modern Caesar would reflect the original. This is Rome, and the production embraces the antique. All the men wear identical togas; clean, crisp, white trimmed with scarlet.

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(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)

Brutus is a well-respected Roman, and Cassius, played by the excellent Martin Hutson, starts suggesting that Rome would be better off without Caesar, who has just returned from a war with Pompey. In a show of humility, the Roman people – offstage – have offered Caesar the crown of emperor, but he refuses three times, only to accept.

Brutus, admirably played by Alex Waldmann, warms to the idea, and before long launches the conspiracy. The comings and goings of the conspirators build the tension, and their plans takes hold.

Earlier in the play, a soothsayer had warned Caesar to “Beware the ides of March,” and just before Caesar was due to go to the Senate, his wife, having dreamt of his death, tries to keep him home. But Caesar heads out on that fateful day.

The famous murder scene is one of the tensest scenes I’ve seen at the RSC. The combination of set and lighting make it a harsh murder, and, while there’s not a lot of blood, there’s enough so the killers can wash their hands in it, and stain their togas.

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After the intermission comes Mark Antony’s famous speech, which begins with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Standing on a small platform in the center of the stage, surrounded by a surprising number of Romans – most of the cast, plus what seems like a gaggle of extras – James Corrigan performs one of the best scenes I have ever seen at the RSC. He is impassioned and truculent, reminding that, “Brutus is an honorable man,” and he plays the crowd like a cheap fiddle.

The remainder of the play is less intense, as the men are seen at war, and Brutus and Cassius have a bit of a falling out. With the conspirators on one side, and Mark Antony and Octavius on the other, war is immanent, and the battle scenes are thrilling, the ending tragic, as several of the conspirators choose death in honor over death at the hands of their enemies.

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The triumvirate of Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony – respectively played by Alex Waldmann, Martin Hutson, and James Corrigan – make up a stellar cast for this production. I felt that Caesar, played by Andrew Woodall, was a bit too much of a loudmouth, spitting as he spoke, and r-r-r-olling his Rs, which may have been a way of marking him as somehow different from the others. The majority of the cast is made up of RSC first-timers, who all acquit their roles with ease and grace.

It’s hard not to see this play and think of politics, either in the US or the UK, with Trump on one side, Brexit on the other. But that’s the beauty of Julius Caesar; it holds a message for all time, to be interpreted according to the current political climate. But Angus Jackson’s production, staying purely in its Roman guise, takes no sides, allowing spectators to make their own transpositions, if they wish.

This was a beautiful production, with creative lighting, and, while there was just the single set in the first half, the set morphed a bit in the second part giving the stage a very different tone. The two key scenes in the middle of the play are among the best theater I’ve seen at the RSC, and the overall production is powerful. I hope to see this play again several times during its run.

The only negative was one brief moment near the end of the play that was so shocking that much of the audience gasped in surprise. This is something that is not in Shakespeare’s text, and that I feel should not be done on stage, but I will say no more so as not to spoil anything.

Julius Caesar has a long run at the RSC, through September, and you’ll be able to see it in cinemas in April. Don’t miss this.