Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy is notoriously difficult to stage. With its Tarantino-sized body count, and horrendously frank depiction of violence, directors have frequently given Titus Andronicus a wide berth. Peter Brook brought it back into fashion in 1955, but it was still rare for the play to be performed intact; until, that is, the RSC invited the 28-year-old maverick Deborah Warner to stage the play.
On 12 May, 1987 the "old shocker" opened at the Swan Theatre in Stratford to mostly appreciative reviews. In the title role, Brian Cox struck "a monumental picture of cadaverous grief" (Financial Times) as the Roman soldier battling the vindictive Goths. In the process, his daughter, Lavinia, is gang-raped by the sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Her hands are chopped off and her tongue removed to silence her; Titus himself loses a hand in a dishonoured pact with Tamora, who promptly decapitates his two sons. "As is usual, it is quite hard to look at the stage", grimaced The Times.
Warner, the first woman to direct a British production of the play, won both the Olivier and Evening Standard awards for her work (the RSC appointed her as resident director the following year). The Times Literary Supplement praised Warner for "presenting a spectacle in which Titus has to be taken on its own terms not for what it might once have been, nor for what it could be turned into." The Financial Times was equally impressed: "Much of what makes Titus a going concern for audiences today is its underlying question of how best we express grief and its challenge to our capacity for horror." It's a challenge that has proved irresistible to another female director, Julie Taymor, who has recently made a star-studded film version of the play. Warner, meanwhile, has also made the leap into film: her directorial debut, The Last September, opened on Friday.