Imported for the RSC's Complete Works Festival, Yukio Ninagawa's production of Titus Andronicus looks like Japan's answer to Peter Brook's legendary white-box staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
This is a startling choice for Shakespeare's notorious bloodbath. Not a drop of gore will be spilled here. Imperial Rome is, in fact, almost ghostly it's so snow-white. Moreover, when the titular general (the superb grizzled veteran Kotaro Yoshida) triumphantly returns from his military campaign - with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in chains - he is formally blessed by the senators who appear on high in magnificent duvet-like robes, resembling gods afloat in cotton-wool clouds.
Later, when the action moves out into the woods, everything remains white. Indeed, it might be a fairytale forest, full of waist-high, spreading leaves on delicately bobbing stalks, like some exotic variety of frosted rhubarb. This scene strikingly echoes the happy ending of A Midsummer Night's Dream, too, when, amidst hunting horns, two previously emotionally entangled couples appear paired off as newly-weds - Tamora with the emperor Saturninus and his brother, Bassianus with Titus's daughter, Lavinia. However, appearances are deceptive. The Andronici's fall from grace is imminent and these woods are savage. As the plots and counterplots of this revenge drama are unleashed - leading to stacks of hacked-off hands, gouged-out tongues and human pies - violent drumbeats accompany stylised cascades of blood-red ribbons spewing from sleeves and neck scarves. Indeed, Rome itself has been dominated from the start by a huge marble statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a sharp-fanged wolf.
The company's Samurai-style armour and massive swords, combined with modern and Western touches, are fitting for this honour-bound but coldly brutal civilization. Yoshida's Titus is a ferocious warrior-patriarch who will shockingly manhandle and slay not just his enemies but his own children when riled. On the other hand, he is a mercurial and passionate father, cleaving his sons to him when the family is stricken with sorrows. In the extraordinary central scenes where he is driven mad at the sight of Lavinia - after she has been raped and mutilated by Tamora's sons - Yoshida oscillates electrifyingly between Lear-like raging and tenderness; he wraps her crumpled body inside his robe like a wailing baby in a shawl.
In the final act, in a moment of disturbing serenity, Lavinia appears in a wedding veil, welcoming death like a bridegroom with a smile as she is, this time fatally, enfolded in her father's arms. There are other strong directorial concepts, including Titus planning his horrific banquet in what looks like a dark, ruined monastery, with body parts laid out under candelabra, suggesting some horrific godless communion. The closing image of the next generation is also memorably ambiguous: Titus's lone surviving grandchild, Lucius, howling as he clutches the baby of Aaron, his clan's old enemy.
This production is not without its problems, no doubt partly because of cultural differences. Some of the heightened and stylised acting (performed in Japanese with surtitles) comes across as almost risibly melodramatic, even pseudo-operatic with much sforzando roaring. Shun Oguri's pretty-boy Aaron seems a particularly hammy villain, forever glowering from under his eyebrows. It doesn't help that he looks as if he's in some passé punk fashion show, striking poses in a red PVC skirt. At its dodgiest, Ninagawa's direction tilts between the pretentiously avant-garde and crude stabs at popular appeal. But at its best, this Titus - co-produced by Thelma Holt and touring to Plymouth - is far more sharply structured and poignant than the Globe's current rival production.
After such harrowing atrocities, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell seems piffling. This is a nostalgic revival of Keith Waterhouse's biographical comedy and erstwhile West End hit which originally starred Peter O'Toole back in 1989. Set in a deliberately skew-whiff replica of old boho Soho's famed Coach and Horses pub, it's based on the life and anecdotal writings of Bernard, the famously drunken Spectator columnist. Staged once again by Ned Sherrin, this is a cosily entertaining evening once it gets rolling. Certainly more amusing than your average alcoholic, Tom Conti exudes his characteristic charm in the title role, reminiscing in a posh slurry drawl and managing to knock back triple vodkas without even removing the drooping cigarette from the corner of his mouth.
However, the caricatured cameo appearances by his fondly remembered fellow-boozers - who surreally pop up behind sliding oak panels sometimes merely for one-line gags - now look scrappy and silly. There is a mournful side to this piece. It is occasionally painful to watch Bernard slowly poisoning himself with hard spirits, apparently never getting rid of the shakes. The one unforgettable black joke is about the pub's suicidal regulars all planning to hire a bus to drive over the edge of Beachy Head en masse ("Book now to avoid disappointment"). But ultimately Conti is just amiably lightweight. Not compulsive viewing.
Far more absorbing and moving is Marina Carr's new hallucinatory Irish deathbed play, Woman and Scarecrow, directed by Ramin Gray. Here Fiona Shaw plays a terminally sick, romantically inclined but disappointed wife who half-wants to give up the ghost but also deeply fears the grave as she lies in her attic room. Breathing her last in psychological slow-motion, she primarily converses and bickers with her alter ego, Brid Brennan's so-called Scarecrow. The latter wanders around in a silk slip and stockings, trying on high-heeled shoes and supposedly fending off black-feathered Death who can be heard monstrously gurgling in the wardrobe, like something in a horror movie.
Brennan essentially represents the Woman's more analytical and bitter side. She wants her grievances aired, to make her serially cheating husband suffer before she goes. Yet she is also a kind of guardian angel and sisterly devoted comforter for Shaw. There are several strained moments in this piece, including a stiff initial dialogue with the Woman's husband, Peter Gowen's Him, and Brennan finally emerging from the wardrobe in a giant crow costume. But this chamber piece is much more intimately engrossing than Carr's previous doom-laden The Bog of Cats. It's indebted to Beckett and to Tom Murphy's Alice Trilogyamong other works, but beautiful veins of lyricism run through this piece, as well as vivid descriptive close-ups of childhood memories and many startling flashes of humour. In a fine performance, Shaw manages to be remarkably funny even on the brink of extinction.
'Titus Andronicus' tours to Theatre Royal, Plymouth, Thur to 1 July (01752 267222); 'Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell', to 2 September (0870 890 1104); 'Woman and Scarecrow', to 15 July (020 7565 5000)Reuse content