It is therefore an act of faith on the part of director Gregory Doran to move Marcus Andronicus's plea "to knit again/ This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf,/ These broken limbs again into one body", to the very end of the play, thus creating an epilogue of hope that the torment might cease and the body politic be healed.
It is an inspired alteration, and the one that most directly refers the play to South Africa's modern history. Yet neither here nor in the production as a whole is this reference laboured. True, Antony Sher's blimpishly pink old soldier Titus and his muttonish sons begin with the aspect of blancoed Boers, but there is no wholesale allegory. They stand to attention for the discipline of civilisation against the lithe, crouching barbarity of the vanquished Gothic queen Tamora and the pliability of the sybaritic Saturninus, but are equally vicious. This, as Titus comes to see, is a "wilderness of tigers", and when Sher speaks the line he rolls the final "R" out of the word into an animal growl. The fate of language, either torn out with Lavinia's tongue and replaced by bestial grunts and growls, or relished in rhetorical fantasies of vengeance and evil by Tamora and Aaron the Moor, is a theme that comes over with particular force in this powerfully voiced production.
It is also a version that deals successfully with the work's famous excesses by a combination of realism and inventive expressionism. Thus it takes three, persisting blows to sever Titus's hand, but, as his sufferings overwhelm him, in a derangement that so clearly foreshadows King Lear, he becomes captain of a junkyard army with a supermarket trolley as command vehicle. Similarly, Lavinia (Jennifer Woodburne), a self-styled icon of purity against Dorothy Ann Gould's besmirched Tamora, waltzes like a music- box ballerina to her pitiless rape and mutilation.
Yet the play's most outrageous character, Aaron, is played most realistically by Sello Maake ka Ncube. His constant mobility and engaging smile exactly embody the confusion we feel about this character who embraces wickedness, defends his blackness and is so tender towards his child. At the end, the text drives him back into stereotype and paints him with the blame for all the horrors we have witnessed. But those contradictory moments, with the babe in his arms, stay fixed in the mind. He and the fastidious Marcus - a beautifully understated and dignified performance from Dale Cutts - are apparent opposites, but something in them both must be the hope for Rome and elsewhere that Justice has not fled the earth.
n At the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1 18-22 July (0171-928 2252)Reuse content