It is 15 years since the Royal Shakespeare Company last staged Titus Andronicus. This unseemly interval is a tribute of sorts to Deborah Warner's landmark production that played in the Swan and at the Pit in the late Eighties. Taking a text that had traditionally suffered as much hacking and lopping as any of the amputees in its notoriously blood-spattered story, Warner proceeded to direct it without cuts. Her patient trust in it revealed a play that was no cheap shocker, but a serious consideration of the terrible effects of violence on the psyche and on the state.
At once liberating and paralysing, this was a hard act to follow. The RSC now make a belated return to Titus in Bill Alexander's clear, creditable, if less than shattering mainstage production which sees David Bradley, a deeply talented, versatile and much-loved player of secondary roles at this address, move into the central spotlight as Shakespeare's battered general.
It's a stark staging stripped to the back wall, with Rome evoked by the large graven face of a goddess and the characters kitted out in a promiscuous assemblage of modern tracksuit bottoms, doublets and improvised togas. The decadence of political life here is graphically illustrated by John Lloyd Fillingham's shifty, poutingly pettish little boy of an Emperor. Back from the wars against the Goths comes the hero with his sons and his prisoners and his problems adjusting to peacetime.
When you fantasise about casting the role of Titus, you tend to think of actors who could also convince as Mark Antony - Brian Cox (who was stupendous in Warner's production), Colin Blakely, Hopkins, Malcolm Storry. Long, spindly, cadaverous-faced and with a distinctly unmilitary bearing, Bradley puts you more in mind of a dodgy archbishop or a shady eminence grise than a punch-drunk old bull of a warrior.
Consequently, because its starting point feels dubious, we don't witness as intensely here the painful journey the character has to make from a stony failure to focus on individuals to a tenderness that starts to emerge only when, cruelly, it is too late.
Bradley is a natural comed-ian and he excels at those bits where humour is used to lighten the atmosphere briefly so as to emphasise the horror that swiftly follows. He's wonderfully deadpan and casual when, in a cook's hat and a suspiciously blood-soaked apron, he serves Maureen Beattie's fiery Scots-accented Tamora, Queen of the Goths, the pie nutritiously filled with her sons. And his sudden production of the bloody knife from his sleeve is like an unnerving stunt in a jokey magic act. As a programme note rightly points out, Shakespeare's major discovery in this play is that when people are driven to a point beyond tears, what they reach is not silence but laughter. I was not convinced, however, that Bradley's Titus had touched this outermost limit of endurance, when that awful mirthless gurgle issued from his throat.
Such laughter is different from the defensive kind to which audiences may resort when the horror is as piled-on as it is in this play. Alexander's production offers escape valves - permitting irreverence at some moments so as to forestall it at others. I liked, for example, the touch of having the raped, mutilated and tongueless Lavinia (a piteous Eve Myles) reduced to kneeing her little nephew in the stomach in her impatience to find the book of Ovid that will help her explain by literary precedent the ordeal she has been through.
It's an evening that boasts a variety of virtues from strong casting (with Joe Dixon rising to a frenzy of incorrigible defiance as Aaron, Tamora's bit of black rough) to pace and shapeliness of outline. But in the best productions, there are times when you feel that this young, possibly collaborative play is a dry run for King Lear. If this account fails on that front, it offers a great deal more than an Elizabethan gore-fest.
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