Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre tonight with a mandate to shock.
In future performances selected volunteers in the audience will be monitored to see what their response was to an (overlong) play of nearly three hours that contains a violent rape, mass mutilations, copious blood-letting and the wholesale slaughter of almost the entire cast.
And you thought Hamlet was violent?
One has to wonder if The RSC will have enough fake blood to last a run until September and the jaunt down to The Barbican over Christmas.
In fact, I can’t imagine a less likely play to enjoy during the festive season.
Titus, part of the company’s Rome Season, is Shakespeare throwing caution to the wind and turning in a play so outrageously violent that I’m surprised it didn’t sink his fledgling career there and then.
But he lived in brutal times, with wars waging and countries being ravaged. His story, though, was spawned from the tales and myths of Ancient Greece when nothing was off the table. The gorier the better.
Director Blanche McIntyre has opted for modern dress to emphasise a society in turmoil and chaos due to a leadership challenge. I can’t imagine who she’s thinking about.
But the production throws in too many gags and some scenes are so ludicrious as to be farcical. The humour, no matter how black, just doesn’t work in this story of ruthless ambition, revenge and relentless slaughter.
In one scene David Troughton’s Titus shuffles on stage in a cardboard box. In another his family fire off toy bows and arrows, Goth Queen Tamora suddenly appears like the image off a Britannia penny and Will Bliss plays the clown as a bicycle courier.
The production is far more successful in times of high tension and suspense such as when avenging son, Lucius (Tom McCall) keeps the audience guessing about whether he intends to murder a newborn infant.
We watch him toy with his belt strap and fashioning it into a noose around the baby’s neck. He gives it to a woman in the audience, takes it back, gives it again. Will the mewling tot live or die?
For those unfamiliar with Titus the roll call of death and mutilation includes two arms and a hand lopped off, a fair few heads decapitated, a horrific rape, shootings, stabbings and throat-cuttings.
Even a hapless fly is hacked to pieces ( though no real flies are hurt during the making of any performance).
Titus, an old war horse who spends his time on the battlefield alongside his many sons, returns to Rome with Tamora and her sons as prisoners-of-war, to find the emperor has died and his two sons are fighting it out for succession.
But the Emperor had named Titus as his succsssor, a move that not only horrifies sons Saturninus (Martin Hutson) and Bassianus (Dharmesh Patel) but also Titus who doesn’t want the job.
He throws his weight behind the excitable Saturninus who claims Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, as his bride – until he catches sight of Tamora and changes his mind.
Lavinia is delighted as she can marry her true love, Bassianus.
But Tamora wants revenge for Titus ordering the execution of her oldest son – whose death sets the ball rolling in this bloodbath and she encourages her remaining two sons to ravish (and more) the lovely Lavinia.
Stefan Adegbola, as Tamora’s manipulative Moor lover, Aaron, also plays his part in whipping up the violence.
After that it’s one horrible plot and counter plot after another.
But, despite the brutality and almost continual orgy of violence, there were lulls in the narrative when I began to lose concentration.
It was even, dare I say it, a trifle dull. “Come on,” I kept thinking. “How much longer before we get to the banquet scene?”
Troughton makes a credible Titus and an even more convincing father who exacts his own justice after his family has been devastated.
The remaining ensemble make the most of their time on stage knowing it’s only a matter of time until they are killed in the most horrendous and shocking way imaginable.
Is it disturbing? Will Titus Andronicus give you sleepless nights? It could have been more graphic.
Perhaps I’ve become too accustomed to stage violence but I must admit, Mr Troughton’s amputation scene was pretty gruesome.
Titus Andronicus plays, in rep, in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until September 2 and is screened live around the world on August 9.
It plays at London’s Barbican Theatre from December 7 until January 19.
This modern dress version of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's goriest play, is a bloodbath but is let down by black humour and overlong scenes.