The trailer for the RSC’s new Titus, its first in some years, promised a macabre production: carrion birds, rusty cooking implements and chains. The play’s reputation preloads any new outing with expectation of blood, violence, sex and excess, the characteristic ingredients of contemporary Jacobean productions. In writing my own piece for this production’s programme, I took my cue from the youthful cast and the remembrance of this play by Ben Jonson 25 years later to suggest this was a classic example of a play whose audacity and brio ensured it burned brightly. With any luck, so will Michael Fentiman’s production.Opening to the sight of three bodies laid out on stretchers, Fentiman established a quiet origin point from which the play’s atrocities could be drawn throughout. Kissing them gently on the head, Stephen Boxer’s Titus lit a cigarette and listened to the tinny sounds of a radio as he sat in restrained, military grief. While the production’s defiantly eclectic mise-en-scene only occasionally visually reflected the play’s Roman basis, the initial stoic resolve of Boxer’s Titus was retained, to allow for deconstruction over the play’s duration. This quiet opening contrasted directly with the dramatic and thunderous conclusion to the first half, as Lucius joined a tribe of drumming Goths, was stripped and branded to primal roars. While not emphasised elsewhere, the sliding scale from civilisation to barbarism was confronted and ultimately collapsed.
In the intimate space of the Swan, the domestic aspects of the play worked most naturally. Despite the large cast, this production understood that the play’s dynamics centre around two nuclear families, the Andronici and Tamora’s immediate circle, and the spatial opposition established between the two (especially as the Andronici knelt before the newly elevated Goths) made this clear. The fly-killing scene that opened the second half was interesting, beginning gently with social awkwardness as Lavinia knocked over glasses and Marcus reacted with embarrassment to Titus’s ravings, but then turned into something more urgent as Marcus pulled the tablecloth away from the table and demonstrated to Lavinia how she could pour salt to spell words without needing hands.
The political aspects of the play were less keenly felt, not least owing to the lack of a crowd in the opening, which meant the orations of Saturninus and Bassianus had little more than rhetorical impact. Richard Goulding’s awkward younger brother was given little space to develop, but in his short scenes worked to domesticate the relationship, reacting to his big brother’s patronising comments in a defensive and scared way, looking over to Lavinia in fear as Saturninus set his sights on her. John Hopkins as the older brother and later emperor was a powerful presence, tall and firm, but again awkward, and clearly not in control of his own impulses, as shown by his inadvertent smile as he donned the crown. Hopkins’s bizarre vocal delivery, pausing in odd places as if spontaneously remembering pre-prepared gobbets, gave a bathetic effect to several of the scenes, making them rather funnier than necessary, but his game nude appearance in a bathtub being washed by handmaidens before having to jump up and deal with the Clown showed a commitment to the exposure of this emperor’s ridiculousness.
The lack of interest in the political side lent an anonymity to the supporting cast, leading to a dip in energy in the play’s second half. The long arming of crossbows, the introduction of the cousins and the messages back and forth between competing factions felt disconnected from the production’s main interests, which were in the immediate impact on known persons. The exception was Dwane Walcott’s Clown, covered in bird droppings and constantly confused. His induction into Titus’s plans and summary onstage hanging at Saturninus’s order was arguably the production’s most moving sequence, a genuine innocent caught up in unthinking and unfeeling violence.
The first half was, by contrast, a fast and inventive descent from the solemnity of the black-robed Marcus and druidical chorus members to sharp and aggressive actions. The slaying of Alarbus was highly ritualised, the victim descending on a trapdoor from view while Titus’s sons stood over him with drawn sons. Mutius was killed by Titus snapping his neck, a rare bloodless killing mirrored at the play’s end. As the violence mounted it became bloodier: Bassianus was stabbed several times, and Lavinia punched and tossed about. In a rather obvious visual image, Lavinia was established in white dress and blonde hair, which was hacked off and tied to her bloodied stumps for her post-rape revelation. Rose Reynolds was not a strong vocal presence early, acting rather diffidently to the horrors befalling her family, but when silenced became an evocative, incriminating and constantly staring figure. Crucially, though, the production failed to give her agency. Even when writing the names of her killers, Richard Durden’s Marcus only allowed her to write the first two letters before filling in the rest himself and erasing her writing.
Far more effective was the casting of teenagers Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward as Chiron and Demetrius. While their unpracticed voices meant some nuance of the characters’ rhetoric was lost, the two captured perfectly the braggadocio of youth. Cocky, aggressive, scrawny and bare-chested, the two gyrated against, pawed and played with their victims. On the hunt, they rode BMX bikes and wore hoodies, playing into obvious social fears. Later, disguised in furs, they struggled to play their parts as Murder and Rape, forgetting their lines and looking to their mother, who was initially worried to leave them alone with Titus. What came across strongly was the unthinking drive to action that made them not evil but misdirected, genuinely shocked at Aaron’s literal ‘spitroasting’ of the nurse as he stuck a dagger between her buttocks (though this didn’t stop them lying down alongside her corpse) and whimpering in terror as Titus hung them upside down from chains and drained their necks.
The always-wonderful Katy Stephens was a gleeful Tamora, revelling in her rich furs and slashed skirts when married to Saturninus and laughing coldly as she pushed Lavinia away from her before the latter’s rape. Stephens’s initial appearance saw her shrieking in despair as Alarbus was killed, and Stephens worked hard to ensure Tamora was driven emotionally. Yet she was supplanted for much of the play by Kevin Harvey’s Scouse Aaron, a tall and sonorous villain who cackled at his tricks and wielded intellectual as well as physical power over his two acolytes. As he walked away with Titus’s hand, his shared aside with the audience bespoke an amoral complicity that accentuated the theatrical verve of Harvey’s performance.
With so much going on, Titus himself was a little buried under the whole. Boxer’s finest moment was as he threw himself on the ground amid the wandering black robed Druids to plea for his sons. The arc was one of a military man becoming increasingly excessive, the stoic resolve becoming a desperately back-slapping camaraderie with Tamora, followed by a slow laughter as the bloodied bags containing the heads of his sons were delivered. In distraction, Titus was not quirky but unpredictable, his emotions often taking a while to settle and his laughter following long pauses. However, the sudden appearance in a French maid’s costume for the final scene felt like an unnecessary exaggeration, depriving him of any dignity.
In this, and in the excess of the conclusion, the production misstepped even as it finally returned to the more interesting theatrical questions. With the stage set for a formal banquet, Fentiman handled the death of Lavinia with a cold hand, she emerging to stand behind Saturninus as he blithely agreed that a raped daughter should die, unaware of Lavinia sharing a steady gaze with the shocked Tamora. Titus then drew Lavinia to him and slowly suffocated her with a cloth over her face while she struggled desperately. The sight of the nobles sitting doing nothing to help, and of Lavinia’s desperate death throes, rather continued to objectify the girl and deprive her of agency, condemning Titus wholeheartedly while offering nothing to complement that. The final melee, however, was spectacular. Titus’s revelation was greeted almost silently as the dinner guests all turned to Tamora who, in disbelief, tasted the pie one more time before breaking into desperate moans. Then the stabbing began, accompanied by manic dinner party music. Geysers of blood shot from Tamora’s neck, a bloodied Marcus sat pummelling her neck, a guest had his tongue cut out, a maid ran around screaming, and Saturninus sat back in his chair clutching his innards. As the slaughter came to an end and about twelve bodies littered the stage, Titus laughed.
The fascinating concluding speeches saw Marcus and Lucius offering special pleading, Lucius stumbling over plates as he stood atop the banquet table promising an empty and comically inappropriate peace. As he called for someone to take his father, he and Marcus quickly realised that there was no one left to obey, and this amusing ending thus carried with it a potent and damningly sarcastic critique. Yet, adding another ending, Young Lucius picked up Aaron’s baby and a cake slice, looking down on the two as the lights went out. While undeniably an effective conclusion, it was one – as with the production as a whole – in which the individual parts were slightly more than the effect of the whole, which had a great many ideas but not quite the patience to follow all through. Nonetheless, an evocative, imaginative and graphic Titus that did much to reclaim the play as a viable stage piece for the 2010s.