Theatre Review: Titus Andronicus by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Redux)

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Last night, as part of my Shakespeare week, I attended the RSC’s production of Titus Andronicus. I first saw this production in June, and wanted to see it again (see this article for a review, and an audio recording of a discussion with the director and two of the leading actors).

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. A classic revenge tragedy, one killing leads to another, and another, and another, and the finale leads to almost everyone dying.

But reducing Titus to a body count (as the RSC does in this infographic) oversimplifies this play. In this production, directed by Michael Fentiman, one sees how Titus becomes mad following the rape and mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia. This act of violence, perpetrated by the two sons of the Goth queen Tamora – who, now the empress of Rome, is getting revenge for Titus having caused the death of her first-born son – leads Titus to take his own revenge.

Stephen Boxer as Titus Andronicus is brilliant, as he shifts from war-weary, on his return to Rome from battle, to a wounded father who has seen his daughter mutilated. Boxer’s ability to show that madness, not just in his words, but also in his actions and the way he moves, helps draw a character torn by grief, yet unable to express that grief in tears.

Katy Stephens, as Tamora, the Goth who, from being Titus’ prisoner becomes empress of Rome, is cunning and deceitful, weaving her plan for revenge throughout the play. And Kevin Harvey, as Aaron the Moor, is one of Shakespeare’s vilest characters. He doubles down on that evil in his final words, as he is buried with only his head above the ground, waiting to die of starvation:

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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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. In stark silence, Marcus recites her wounds:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As have thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.

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.

Titus Andronicus is not without humor, and Titus’ madness, in particular, leads to some funny moments. But once the evil deed has been done, Titus’ tragic destiny cannot be changed. He kills Tamora’s two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, bakes them in a pie, and serves them to Saturninus, emperor of Rome, and Tamora. He kills Lavinia, then all hell breaks loose, as most of the characters at the banquet are killed, and the stage is littered with bloodied bodies.

There was much laughter from some of the younger members of the audience during this slaughter, and it’s hard to pull off this scene. When Tamora’s throat was cut, the blood squirted at least six feet in the air, and it seemed as though it was a parody. I’m not sure whether one should laugh at this or not; it’s a tragic end to a revenge tragedy, where, as in Hamlet, bodies pile up. It goes a bit overboard, but in this production, it all seems to fit.

Here’s one of the trailers for the RSC production of Titus Andronicus.

See Katy Stevens discuss her role of Tamora in Titus Andronicus:

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