THEATRE / All ears, tongues, hands: Jeffrey Wainwright on Titus Andronicus at the Bolton Octagon.

'ENTER a messenger with two heads and a hand.' Titus Andronicus begins with public oratory and is studded with rhetorical eloquence, but it is mute images such as the one conjured by this stage direction that, for good or ill, really hold the stage. This visual sensationalism makes the play a good, if redoubtable, choice for artistic director Lawrence Till's project of mounting a production by an integrated hearing and deaf company that combines speech, sign language, voice-over techniques and visual stylisation.

The show is supported by the Arts Council's 'Be Bold' initiative, and the approach brings a different sensitivity not only to watching this play but to some of the basic features by which stories are told in the theatre (even to such simple conventions as the sign language of applause). In particular the play's central, compelling event - the rape of Titus's daughter Lavinia who then has her tongue and hands cut away - is given an unsettling poignancy by the strong performance of the profoundly deaf actress Paula Garfield. First of all handed about from one potential husband to another, then meeting her gory fate at the hands of the Empress Tamora's sons (played here by Tom Higgins and the baby-faced Tony Forsyth as a pair of sicko leather-boys), only to be put out of her misery by the nihilistic despair of her own father, Lavinia is one of the most entirely victimised of Shakespeare's women. Her helpless cries as the boys toss her tiny frame between them are truly painful and though the succeeding scene where they mock her condition is drawn out beyond the text, the sensationalism is wholly justified because we are left in no doubt that such a thing could commonly happen.

However, the degree to which Lawrence Till succeeds with his storytelling method is limited. Penny Fitt's interesting-looking set with its scaffolding and corrugated sheeting turns out to limit the playing space and inhibits sightlines. The eclectic mix of anachronistic costume and props comes over as a grab- bag of familiar novelties that are not often informative. The signing also appears to be erratic in that some performances and passages are comprehensibly signed while others are not. The Emperor and Empress (John Griffin and Julia Finlay) are always demonstrative and, frequently placed above the action, are in maximum view. Down in the dirt, and turned away from sections of the Octagon's arena, other passages must be very difficult to read from face and body language alone.

Most surprising is the low-key version of Titus himself from Peter Harding. Even the big set- piece laments, underpowered vocally, are not much enhanced by physical expression. In the latter part of the play, where Titus's rage gives way to the sardonic calculation of his revenge, he huddles more and more inscrutably into his greatcoat. Even his plan to mince the brothers and serve them as pasties is delivered matter-of- factly. The production is a bold one, but only fitfully distinctive.

Booking: 0204 20661.

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