Titus Andronicus at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse review
Men, killing men, killing men, killing men, killing women, killing men, killing men, killing children… Titus Andronicus at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse demonstrates that revenge is a dish best served hot and messy.
Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and his juvenile enthusiasm for violence and depravity has fascinated and appalled audiences since its earliest performances. A content note in the programme for this production warns that the “play contains incidents and themes of anti-black racism, ableism, sexual assault and its aftermath, murder, infanticide and extreme violence including bodily mutilations, cannibalism, rape and self-harm”, and suggests that many may find it “extremely upsetting”.
But regular and often riotous laughter from the audience told another story, that while such acts in fiction may be harrowing in isolation, offering up a surfeit of horrors can tip over into the absurd.
Director Jude Christian apparently shares the sensibilities of splatter movie auteurs like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, who found humour in gratuitous, over-the-top displays of violence. The production sets out its stall immediately, with a musical opening number that is the best song about taking enjoyment in the misfortune of others since the puppets of Avenue Q discovered the meaning of “schadenfreude”. The cast cavorts around the stage, cheerily promising that the audience will find the suffering of the characters cathartic. Honestly, it’s a relief, because the characters definitely suffer.
Despite being one of Shakespeare’s most engaging plays, for obvious reasons it is seldom studied in school, and therefore audiences may not be familiar with the plot. Our soon to be tragic hero, Titus, returns to Rome after defeating the Goths. Among his trophies are Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her sons. He arrives to find the sons of the recently deceased emperor on the brink of civil conflict over the question of succession, but while the Roman public wishes the conquering general to seize the imperial diadem, Titus demurs.
Having lost 21 sons in service to Rome, he chooses instead to support the claim of the elder son, Saturninus. Tamora’s eldest son is sacrificed, but when Saturninus decides to marry her, she manipulates the newly crowned emperor to bring about the downfall of Titus and his family. By the end of the play, pretty much all the characters are dead – and many of them have been mutilated – but only one has been tricked into eating their own children.
The play has an all-woman cast, but the reason for this is not immediately evident. Perhaps it is an inversion of the traditional Shakespearean productions in which all the parts were played by men, perhaps it is a commentary on male violence against women (or a way to pre-empt complaints sometimes levelled against the play that it glorifies, normalises, excuses, or presents such violence uncritically), or perhaps they were simply the best actors for the job.
Certainly, there are solid dramatic performances from Katy Stephens as Titus, Georgia-Mae Myers as his daughter Lavinia, and Kibong Tanji as Tamora’s co-conspirator, Aaron. However, it is the comic performances that really shine here. Lucy McCormick brings the same swivel-eyed, childish intensity to her Saturninus that Malcom McDowell delivered in Caligula, backed-up with impeccable improvisational skills. Meanwhile, Beau Holland delivers perfectly measured humour in several minor roles; notably a clown, a fly, and two idiot sons of Titus, who fall in a pit.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is lit by candles, and productions often find creative ways for characters to interact with the candelabras. An ingenious conceit of this play is that characters carry with them a candle on-stage, which represents their lifeforce while it is burning, and their body once it is snuffed out. This reality becomes so accepted by the audience that seeing a candle put through a hand-cranked meat mincer and attacked with a power-drill is recognised at once as a hilarious atrocity. Titus Andronicus will punch you in the funny bone, and the gut.