The last time Titus Andronicus was performed at the Rose Playhouse, on Bankside, the leading role was taken by Edward Alleyn and he was watched by a nervous young writer called William Shakespeare who was hoping his first stab at a tragedy would be a success.
More than 400 years later the production is back. It’s unlikely Alleyn or Will would recognise it but there’s no doubt that this astonishing and savage production, influenced by its Korean director Jung Han Kim, would have thrilled them with its daring and inventiveness.
Titus Andronicus is more than just a tragedy, this is extreme horror in all its forms. Written around about 1594, when bawdy theatre audiences enjoyed a bloody good story of violence and revenge, there’s no doubt that its author aimed high in a bid to trounce his rivals.
This brutal tale of retribution features cannibalism, rape, torture, mutilation and murder, and its leading lady, surely a template for Lady Macbeth, is the playwright’s greatest villain.
Set in ancient Rome where two brothers – Bassianus and Saturnius – squabble over the throne, it opens with our antihero, their uncle, the warrior Titus, throttling a rival before heading back home with a prisoner-of-war, the Queen of the Goths, Tamora.
Once in Rome he is offered the crown but refuses and, instead, hands it to Saturnius. He, in turn, asks for Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, who is already engaged to Bassianus, as his bride.
When refused, and, it must be said, in a fit of pique which he surely later regretted, he claims Tamora.
It’s a catalyst that turns father against sons and puts Titus and Tamora on a terrible path that cuts a swathe through the rest of the play.
New York-based, Jung Han Kim has assembled an international cast for this visceral, stylised and experimental production which is part of the Contemporary Shakespeare initiative that is staging work in both the Big Apple and London this summer.
Charles Sandford’s very physical portrayal as the barbaric Titus is tremendous. There are moments, when he’s strangling his foes, that his victims look in real discomfort. No namby pamby play acting for him. I wondered if the house has the local St John ambulance medics on speed-dial.
He gives an intense, energetic and mesmerising performance as a victorious soldier on the field of battle, a distraught father, and a lunatic, driven mad, possibly, by tragedy. At one point Titus leads his cast in a quite unexpected dance which would be funny, if you didn’t know what lay ahead.
Australian Laura Hopwood is enthralling as the demonic and vengeful Tamora who stops at nothing to lay siege on the Andronicus household. Tamora is evil personified and Hopwood is thrilling in the part.
This is a first rate ensemble piece with powerful performances by all. Tendai, Humphrey Sitima, as Tamora’s servant and lover, Aaron (bizarrely dressed in steampunk goggles and rubber gloves) is menacing while David Couter and Mark Curley hold nothing back as the queen’s demonic sons.
Titus Andronicus runs at the Rose Playhouse until July 30.
Savage, brutal, astonishing to watch. Korean director Jung Han Kim’s experimental adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at the Rose Playhouse is thrilling.