Titus Andronicus, Riverside Studios, London

On the gorepath
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The white tiled set, a combination crematorium and slaughterhouse, may make the clean-up crew's task easier, but oh! the laundry bills. When Titus Andronicus's daughter, Lavinia, is raped and mutilated, blood not only spurts from her mouth and arms but streams over her torn clothing and exposed groin. Her tormentors, also covered in gore, cavort, mocking her, but, with only a pair of underpants between them, they pose less of a washday problem. Marcus, Lavinia's uncle, puts his cream linen jacket round her, and, as the play goes on, his trousers, too, are daubed with red.

Deemed unplayable not long ago, Titus Andronicus now seems to be all over the place. But its popularity has, I think, less to do with present-day horrors, as far from most of us as ever (I've seen, in my lifetime, far more kangaroos than corpses), than with the present taste for blood-soaked entertainment. And, while the audience rocking with laughter at The Lieutenant of Inishmore had the proper response to its satirical absurdities, I don't think Shakespeare meant the-atregoers to giggle, as many here do, at his scenes of grot-esque horror. Or, if he did, he shouldn't have.

The director Xavier Leret puts his Romans in rather tacky modern dress (Queen Tamora wears black PVC trousers and high-heeled boots; her lover, Aaron the Moor, a Nike T-shirt and rhinestone dollar-sign pendant). The Jam-aican accent of Guy Burgess may lend Aaron contemporaneity, but at the cost of scansion and intelligibility. Lisa Tramontin's cold and soulless Tamora remarks, in a butter-wouldn't-melt manner, "How easily murder is discovered" of the crime for which she has framed Titus's sons. But, by the time she asks Titus, in a tone of only mild curiosity, why he has just killed his daughter, she seems not so much chilling as vapid and shallow.

Lee Beagley's vague and shambling Titus, and Peter Holmes as his brother, apparently separated from him at birth and brought up in Ireland, add to the lack of cohesion, as does the grim set. The small cast, not only doubling and tripling but, in one case, sextupling, make the story difficult to follow. Tamora's hulking sons badly impersonate their enemies and, when supposedly in disguise, make no effort to change their appearance.

Some of Leret's techniques are strikingly effective, such as the first, surprising appearance of the captive queen, or Lavinia, after the rape, pressing her silent, bloodied mouth to the white wall. But he dimin-ishes the power of many scenes by letting them run a minute too long and accompanying them with superfluous spooky music and sound effects. Indeed, this version – especially when contrasted with Phil Wilmott's far more thoughtful production last year at BAC – shows that, these days, with terror so thick on the ground, the wise director goes for beauty and pity.

To 23 February (020-8237 1111)

Comments