Thoughts on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus

I first saw the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of Titus Andronicus in July. (Here’s my review.) Last night, I saw the production for the fourth time. Of the three Shakespeare plays currently running in Stratford – the other two are Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) – this is by far the most interesting, and the most accomplished.

This is a staggering production, with extraordinary acting, notably by David Troughton (Titus), Martin Huston (Saturnius), and Hannah Morrish (Lavinia). Last night, I was in the front row, center, by the vom on the right, and had a close up of some of Lavinia’s most moving moments in the play, such as when she is begging Tamora to keep her sons from raping her, then begging to be killed. Or when she comes back on stage and Titus sees her for the first time. Both when speaking and when totally silent (Lavinia has her tongue cut out), Morrish is very impressive.

While all three of these actors are excellent, I think I have been most impressed by Stefan Adegbola as Aaron. He is a conniving, sweet-talking man, yet, in his two big speeches near the end – when captured by the Goths, then when sentenced to a cruel and painful death – shows that he is evil incarnate. I would love to see Adegbola in more roles at the RSC; or in almost anything. He is able to perfectly represent this complex character with grace and charm, but can be as evil as sin when needed.

But Titus is a difficult play. It’s violent and bloody, excessively so. The RSC plays up the gory elements of the production, and, as such, has suffered commercially. The last two times I saw the play – last night, and last Wednesday – the entire upper circle was closed off, and there were plenty of empty seats on the sides in the stalls, and in the circle. They’re running this show at maybe two thirds capacity, which, to be honest, is a failure.

Last Wednesday, I got to talking with two American tourists who were sitting behind me. They had read in the Guardian that people were fainting or getting sick at every performance. It’s almost as though that element of the review may have attracted them to the play, but this also repels a lot of people. In four performances, I’ve seen a few people walk out, but I haven’t seen anyone faint or vomit. People may gasp and cringe, but to be honest, the 2013 production in the Swan Theatre had more of an effect on audiences. (I know there have been fainters and vomiters, however, at some performances, just not as many as the press would lead you to believe.)

It’s hard to know how to best approach this play. It’s much tamer than an episode of Game of Thrones, but seeing (fake) blood is very different when it’s in person, especially if you’re close to the stage. You get drawn into a production like this, and your suspension of disbelief makes it seem more real than when you see it on television. Would more people see this play if it were less graphically bloody? Would it still be Titus Andronicus if it weren’t so bloody? After all, aside from the run-of-the-mill killings, one woman is raped, her tongue cut out and her hands cut off; her father sacrifices his hand to ransom his two sons, but that hand, and the heads of the sons, are returned to him in scorn; and Titus kills Tamora’s two sons, cooks them in a pie, and serves them up in a macabre final feast that sees four dead. It’s hard to tone that down.

I consider Titus Andronicus to be one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays; it’s not up there with Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, but it’s a powerful revenge tragedy that examines the escalation of violence until it reaches a paroxysm. It’s over the top, and if you know the play, you are prepared. But most people don’t go to the theater expecting that kind of violence.

Titus Andronicus is an important part of the Shakespearean canon, but is a difficult play. With excellent actors and direction, it can be very powerful, but it is also very risky. I think the RSC has done a great job with this production, and, while I understand why some people don’t want to see it, it remains on of Shakespeare’s strongest statements about the perils of revenge and its escalation.

(I was so inspired by the 2013 production of Titus Andronicus, that I chose Titus as the name for a cat I got later that year. Here’s a photo of him.)

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus

  1. How was the violence portrayed in Shakespeare’s time? How about in 1900, or the 1950s? The enthusiasm for graphic violence in movies has increased tremendously over the last forty years, and I wonder about the variations in the presentation of violence in this play over the last 300 years. I imagine that a more subtle portrayal could be perhaps even more effective than the explicit violence.

    • In the RSC’s edition of the play, they discuss the performance history. I’m guessing it was pretty violent in Shakespeare’s day, but in more modern times, a variety of options have been used to either focus on or attenuate the violence. One production just used red silks to imitate the blood, for example. But the last two at the RSC have been very gory indeed.

  2. How was the violence portrayed in Shakespeare’s time? How about in 1900, or the 1950s? The enthusiasm for graphic violence in movies has increased tremendously over the last forty years, and I wonder about the variations in the presentation of violence in this play over the last 300 years. I imagine that a more subtle portrayal could be perhaps even more effective than the explicit violence.

    • In the RSC’s edition of the play, they discuss the performance history. I’m guessing it was pretty violent in Shakespeare’s day, but in more modern times, a variety of options have been used to either focus on or attenuate the violence. One production just used red silks to imitate the blood, for example. But the last two at the RSC have been very gory indeed.

  3. “Titus Andronicus”, co-written with at least one other author, was, in Shakespeare’s day, intended as a money-making production. Revenge plays were popular, and this is his take on them. (Titus is a fictional character.)

    The writing rarely, if ever, rises to what we would consider “Shakespearean”, though whether this is due to multiple authorship (likely), or the difficulty of waxing poetic about someone having her hands cut off (also likely), is hard to say. The writing simply doesn’t sound like Shakespeare. This contrasts with “Henry VIII” (which we know was co-written with John Fletcher), where you can easily hear the alteration of authors.

    I recently saw the 1999 “Titus”, with Anthony Hopkins. I’m not impressed with his performance, but the direction and production are exceptional. The film also has an outstanding score by Eliot Goldenthal.

    By the way, David Troughton is the son of Patrick Troughton, who, in my opinion, was the best actor to portray The Doctor.

    • Yes, that specific speech is a weak point, but Isaac Asimov in his book suggests that it has to be that lyrical because of the brutality of the scene. (I don’t agree.)

      There is a lot of true Shakespearean language in the play, notably in much of what Aaron says.

      I only watched part of that movie; I didn’t like the approach.

      Did you know that Steve Bannon was behind that film?

      https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/11/29/titus-in-space/

  4. “Titus Andronicus”, co-written with at least one other author, was, in Shakespeare’s day, intended as a money-making production. Revenge plays were popular, and this is his take on them. (Titus is a fictional character.)

    The writing rarely, if ever, rises to what we would consider “Shakespearean”, though whether this is due to multiple authorship (likely), or the difficulty of waxing poetic about someone having her hands cut off (also likely), is hard to say. The writing simply doesn’t sound like Shakespeare. This contrasts with “Henry VIII” (which we know was co-written with John Fletcher), where you can easily hear the alteration of authors.

    I recently saw the 1999 “Titus”, with Anthony Hopkins. I’m not impressed with his performance, but the direction and production are exceptional. The film also has an outstanding score by Eliot Goldenthal.

    By the way, David Troughton is the son of Patrick Troughton, who, in my opinion, was the best actor to portray The Doctor.

    • Yes, that specific speech is a weak point, but Isaac Asimov in his book suggests that it has to be that lyrical because of the brutality of the scene. (I don’t agree.)

      There is a lot of true Shakespearean language in the play, notably in much of what Aaron says.

      I only watched part of that movie; I didn’t like the approach.

      Did you know that Steve Bannon was behind that film?

      https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/11/29/titus-in-space/

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