Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's earliest and goriest tragedy, was a smash hit in his lifetime, but then it toppled into centuries of disrepute. "Rather a heap of rubbish than a structure" was the verdict of Edward Ravenscroft who, in 1678, wrote the first adapted version. T S Eliot dismissed the piece as "one of stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written".
Over the past two generations, though, there has been a spectacular upswing in the fortunes of this black sheep of the tragedies. Partly, it has been rescued by modern history. After the mass-barbarities of the 20th century, the play's pile-up of atrocities - rape, mutilation, murder, cannibalism, sons served to their mother in a pie - no longer seems embarrassingly excessive.
On the contrary, it makes Titus our contemporary, and instead of attracting scorn as a titillating shocker, the play has been re-evaluated as a powerful exploration of the effect on human beings of extreme violence and loss. At its heart, we've come to recognise, is the struggle to endure and express unspeakable grief.
Returning to Rome after a 10-year campaign against the Goths, the eponymous battered veteran initiates the cycle of vengeance when he ritually sacrifices one of his prisoners, the eldest son of Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Installed as the wife of the corrupt new emperor, she becomes the hero's deadly enemy, forfeiting sympathy by the calculated sadism of her family's retaliation.
In the first half of the play, Titus suffers a sequence of retributive hammer-blows besides which the fate of Job begins to look like a form of divine favouritism. You reckon that matters can't get worse when the hero is faced with the harrowing spectacle of his daughter Lavinia, who has been raped and had her tongue torn out and her hands chopped off to thwart the identification of her tormentors. But then Titus is tricked into severing one of his own hands as ransom for the lives of his falsely incriminated sons, only to have the hand and the decapitated heads of his boys contemptuously sent back to him. He goes into profound emotional shock - "When will this fearful slumber have an end?"
Shakespeare's key insight is that at moments of insupportable pain, humans can be pitched beyond tears into a desperate kind of laughter. "Why, I have not another tear to shed," Titus tells his brother, who has rebuked him for the unsuitability of his response.
That laugh is a stunning effect - in its psychological truth; in its acknowledgment that, as the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate has written, "human nature does not obey dramatic decorum"; and in its pivotal importance in the drama.
His mirthless cackling is the signal that the hero has been pushed over the edge and that the play is about to change direction into a black nihilistic comedy of feigned madness and ingenious revenge.
Two remarkable modern productions have been crucial in the rehabilitation of Titus Andronicus, though their methods were very different. In Peter Brook's landmark 1955 revival at Stratford, the violence was stylised, the wounds of Lavinia represented by red streamers at the wrists and mouth. His ritualised approach showed that this was a play that had to be taken seriously.
But Brook pre-empted inappropriate laughter by cutting some 650 lines, and he underscored proceedings with loudmusique concrète (based on taped sounds). The barbaric grandeur was bought at the price of suppressing the gallows humour and all trace of comic irreverence.
By contrast, Deborah Warner's brilliant 1987 staging, with the matchless Brian Cox as Titus, was intimate and realistic (the number of audience members who fainted became legendary). Using the full text, the production walked the tightrope between horror and laughter. By heightening and supplementing the conscious black comedy, it not only forestalled mirth but made the pain and the pity all the more searing.
Communicating the intolerable grief of a man who discovers a capacity for tenderness only when it is too late, Cox superbly revealed how, in this first tragic hero, Shakespeare anticipated King Lear.
The fact that Titus is a drama that speaks to our times has been proved by several illuminating recent accounts. We live in an era of momentous regime changes. At the start, the hero makes disastrous mistakes because he is rigidly loyal to an outmoded concept of Rome. He's a dinosaur who has to learn that there are deeper and more important allegiances than those to the state.
So it was a bracing move by Greg Doran to transpose the proceedings to the new South Africa in a production 1995 with Antony Sher playing Titus as (in one critic's description) "a Pretoria Patton". Then there's the question of violence. A drama about our responses to violence and a potentially dangerous violent drama: can you have the one without the other?
That's the dilemma explored in Julie Taymor's powerful 1999 movie adaptation through the device of projecting a young boy from the present day into an eclectic, time-collapsed version of tragedy in which he is successively victim, observer, observer-participant and breaker of the revenge cycle.
Two new productions of the play open in the next few weeks. In June, the producer Thelma Holt brings Yukio Ninagawa's Japanese Titus Andronicus to the Complete Works Festival at Stratford. On Monday, there's the première of Lucy Bailey's staging of the tragedy at Shakespeare's Globe.
Holt, who soon celebrates 20 years of producing Ninagawa in this country, reveals that while he plays up the grotesque comedy ("Tamora is pure Joan Collins"), the director treats the drama as myth in a production which has affinities with the ancient Greek stage. "Everything is symbolic. No water, no tears, no blood. Hysteria is contained." Red ribbons betoken the gore. Severed limbs and heads are made of translucent plastic. As with Ninagawa's ravishing accounts of Macbeth and Pericles, there will be the sense that the drama unfolds as part of an endlessly recurring ritual.
By contrast, stage blood will emphatically spurt at the Globe. Bailey is drawn to Titus because it seems to inhabit simultaneously the world of Elizabethan revenge tragedy and the world of Edward Bond ("It's extraordinary that here is a play with a raped girl at its centre"). It will be fascinating to see how it works in an Elizabethan-style playhouse.
The theatre, though, has been conspicuously modified for the occasion. To give the location a creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere and the feel of a gladiatorial arena, William Dudley's design will cover the open-air space with a black canvas roof, inspired by the cooling system (or valerium) of the Roman Colosseum. "Strangely," says Bailey, "the best-lit people at the Globe are the audience." Plunging the whole place into murk (striped by dramatic shafts of light through the gaps in the material) will correct that imbalance.
Watching other productions at this address, Douglas Hodge, who stars as Titus, has noticed the audience's tendency "to try to overpower the play", with the groundlings egging the actors on in the direction of comedy. It therefore makes it wonderfully risky stadium for a play that frequently balances on a knife edge between grief and Grand Guignol.
Hodge has a coherent conception of the character. The man who has spent his life fighting the Goths eventually "goes to war against his own grief" in the antic revenge plot, says the actor. It's the unfamiliar passivity in between that is torture to him. Evidently glad that there are 10 preview performances in which to practise crowd control, Hodge reports that, "I have the suspicion that, if everything comes right, Titus in this space could go like a bomb."
And for once in its history, it will not be a contradiction in terms to say that a production at the Globe has "raised the roof".
'Titus Andronicus', Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (020-7401 9919), to 6 October. Ninagawa's 'Titus Andronicus', Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (0870 609 1110) 16 to 24 JuneReuse content