This latest production of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, to borrow from football punditry, is a play of two halves. Before the half time whistle is blown we a taken at a canter through a series of 'you killed mine so I will kill yours' revenge scenarios, the fallout from the political ambitions of rival brothers in Rome and the vengeance brought down by the defeated Goth Queen Tamora.
But despite the ingenious and diverse manner of butchery and killing on offer there is little opportunity to build an emotional connection and instead I became more intrigued by what trickery a hand being chopped off on stage would be achieved.
The problem largely lies with the text, rather than Michael Fentiman's production; Shakespeare devotes precious little time to establishing characters before they are tortured, assassinated or mutilated. It's in stark contrast to what happens now with modern news reportage in which we are typically given a depth of emotional connection with a victim of horrific violence, as family voice their love and colleagues tell of the valour and bravery of the man lying dead in the street. Twenty-four hours after the real life horror story in Woolwich I felt I should have been more much more uncomfortable watching this particular play.
The second half is much stronger as the production lets go at any attempt at realism and forges ahead with a portrayal of a dysfunctional and decadent royal household whose downfall is being plotted in a modest villa on the outskirts, home to the loving but crazed remnants of the once mighty Andronici. And there is time here to develop those vital connections – to mourn with Lavinia, to pity Titus, to grow weirdly fond of Tamora's murderous offspring.
To quote what Tamora's sons might have said had they survived to see it, the realisation of the final feast is truly mental, a laugh out loud gore-fest and an obvious homage to the master of over the top blood and guts, Quentin Tarantino. There are some irritating sign postings to direct the audience – haven't we got beyond hoodies and BMX bikes to signal feral youth? - and the Perspex riot shields and storm-trooper garb of the imperial guard are rather hackneyed.
It's a strong cast, and Stephen Boxer is deft with Titus' unravelling from battle-hardened general to maniacal grieving father. As Aaron, the truly demonic lover of Kate Stephens' punk/goth Tamora, Kevin Harvey relishes the verse he rolls around his forked tongue and he draws out our sympathy and revulsion in equal measure as he cradles his infant son while slaughtering the baby's nurse. Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward are chilling as Chiron and Demetrius, barely adult and strangely vulnerable.
Though the first half of Titus Andronicus might be the equivalent of the 21st century video game nasty, the second does allow us to pause and reflect on the futility of revenge.
- Joanna Matthews