“But must my sons be slaughtered in the streets for valiant doings in their country’s cause?” asks Titus Andronicus, mourning a stage full of corpses as prelude to three hours of gratuitous violence with knives, daggers and meat cleavers.
Opening in the same week as the Woolwich atrocity, nothing seems too far-fetched in Shakespeare’s shocker, and new director Michael Fentiman (formerly an assistant director with the RSC) wastes no time in tapping into the multiplicity of internet images of hangings, decapitations and death threats that stalk our daily news intake. The barbarity that Samuel Johnson considered intolerable to any audience is only too familiar a means of fuelling our unease and discontent.
Titus (Stephen Boxer) is a fictional Roman general who, victorious in his wars against the Goths, is embroiled in a revenge cycle with the defeated Queen Tamora (Katy Stephens), her sons and her lover, Aaron the Moor (Kevin Harvey). Things only get worse when the psychotic, debauched new emperor, Saturninus (John Hopkins), makes Tamora his empress and her sons rape and severely mutilate Titus’s daughter, Lavinia (Rose Reynolds).
The latter, deprived of tongue and hands, her stumps wrapped in her own shorn golden tresses, is a pitiful sight for sore eyes. She manages to spell out her persecutors’ names by spilling salt on the table (instead of using a stick in the sand) and before long the young boys – Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon as Demetrius and Chiron look very young indeed — are suspended by their ankles, their gizzards slashed, their blood dripping into steel bowls.
Rome’s “wilderness of tigers” is a dystopian disaster area full of great speeches for both Titus and his brother Marcus, whom Richard Durden makes a wincing moral barometer of bad news.
Titus berates Lavinia for killing a fly, a passage Boxer plays with humorous disbelief, preparing for his giddy transformation into a kitchen chef (in black dress and pinafore): he serves Tamora his signature dish of paté de deux fils en croute, a delightfully eccentric entry in the Great British Bake-Off.
Boxer doesn’t lionise the role as a wannabe Lear, as Colin Blakeley and, especially, Brian Cox have done so brilliantly at the RSC in the past. This is grand guignol, impure and simple, not a symphony of grief. Highly enjoyable, all the same, though, and a timely attempt to get violence off the street and into the theatre where it properly belongs.
To 26 October (0844 800 1110)