Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's earliest and goriest tragedy, was a smash hit in its day, but then it toppled into centuries of disrepute and neglect. Since the Second World War, though, its fortunes have risen. Partly, this is because the pile-up of atrocities in the piece no longer seems implausible after the mass horrors of the 20th century. Partly it's thanks to great directors who have demonstrated that the play is less about violence than about the effects of unspeakable suffering and grief.
In Yukio Ninagawa's cruelly beautiful Japanese production, the violence is totally stylised. Gore is represented by swatches of red cords that tumble and trail from wounded wrists and mouths. You might think that this method would have a cushioning effect. In fact, it concentrates and heightens the horror. The dazzling main set is dominated by a statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf. The debasement of 4th-century AD Rome can be deduced from the thuggish-ness of sensibility paraded in this object. The eponymous general (Kotaro Yoshida) has devoted his life to fighting for the state and now he is forced to awaken to the nightmare of the city's ingratitude and to learn that he has neglected more important allegiances.
Yoshida is excellent as the military hero experiencing the unfamiliar shock of rebuff and the disintegration of the old values. He has been programmed to think with his swords and it's a devastating moment when these weapons fall from his hands and his legs give way beneath him. Yoshida superbly conveys the fury of impotence that Titus's grief makes all the more searing. Indeed, the borderline between real and feigned madness is shaky when the hero embarks on his revenge plot and the blackly comic conspiracy with the audience is much reduced.
Compensating for this, there's Shun Oguri's sexy portrayal of Aaron, the toy-boy of Rei Asami's Joan-Collins-like Tamora. It's not that Oguri sets out to charm the punters with his soliloquies as the Machiavellian moor. It's just that in not treating the audience with the contempt he directs at everyone in the play, he makes you feel flattered. At the end, Ninagawa offers a moment of ambiguous hope. Titus's grandson Lucius takes pity on Aaron's baby and cradles it in his arms. In protest at the horror, the boy lets out a series of howls. A cause for optimism, perhaps, in demonstrating that he's not been desensitised by atrocity.
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