Theatre Review: Titus Andronicus @The Royal Shakespeare Company
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Titus Andronicus is not an easy play to stage. Perhaps Shakespeare’s most violent work, the play is famed for its excessive savagery; rape, mutilation, and cannibalism are so ubiquitous in Titus Andronicus that for years, many critics have derided the play for its sadism and narrative simplicity. Difficult as it is to look past this brutality, productions of Titus Andronicus are few and far between. Yet in this latest iteration, the Royal Shakespeare Company has crafted something beautiful from this rough diamond. Revealing a depth to the play that is often overlooked, the RSC’s Titus Andronicus is at once prescient and timeless and betrays the hidden violence of dying civilisations. As Rome lies on the brink of civil war, ageing soldier Titus Andronicus (David Troughton) returns victorious from battle to answer the public’s call for leadership. Titus refuses the throne and executes the son of captive Tamora (Nia Gwynne), Queen of the Goths, to avenge his twenty-one sons who died in the conflict between their peoples. The cycle of degradation and revenge that follows threatens to consume the once-great civilisation of Rome. Praise is first due to David Troughton, whose performance anchors the production. Troughton takes Titus from an over-the-hill soldier, away from the battlefield in his formal military dress and lets him grow with his grief and vengeance into a towering presence on the stage. Nia Gwynne is particularly impressive as Tamora, whose plot for revenge is complicated by the ghostly presence of her son Alarbus (Jon Tarcy). Attention must also be paid to Stefan Adegbola as Aaron; his navigation of the play’s problematic attitude towards race is subtle, and he sells Aaron’s unapologetic villainy whilst still wrenching some sympathy from the audience. When faced with the overblown violence of Titus Andronicus, a modern audience typically finds it amusing. Watching several hundred people giggle at a man chopping off his own hand might seem like a failure, but in reality, it reveals a much more disturbing point. Most of the play’s brutality is reminiscent of bad slasher films, but our reactions show how inured we have become to basic human suffering. Titus Andronicus may be set in late-Imperial Rome, but this production’s quasi-modern aesthetic reflects its contemporary relevance. Director Blanche McIntyre asks her audience a series of very modern questions: what happens when our leaders can be openly corrupt and oppressive without fear of repercussions? What happens to civilisation when violence becomes the norm and no longer provokes an emotional response from either its participants or its witnesses?
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