Flo Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia
Flo Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia
© Simon Kane

It seems perverse to kick off Shakespeare's 450th birthday season with this, one of his more obscure plays. But with some timely publicity about the sanguinary nature of Lucy Bailey's production, complete with fainting spectators and active first-aiders, one was reminded how powerful a play this is.

The production could certainly call on the weather gods: the darkening skies and the rain provided a suitably gloomy background to the gory events, an effect heightened by William Dudley's velarium – the awning covering the arena. Bailey gets to the brutality at the heart of the play: unlike traditional tragedies, the bloody events stem not from human weaknesses but from the brutal nature of the society itself. Bailey's Romans seem barely distinguishable from the Goths; it's a world where mob rule and violence hold sway.

Right from the outset, William Houston's Titus arrives in the bubbling hostility of Rome with a heart set on revenge: he slaughters Tamora's son without a thought and then does the same with his own, until the death of his other sons and mutilation of Lavinia gives him a focus to his rage.

It's easy to dwell on the bloody goings on but Bailey brings out the poetry of the play too. And while much of the action resembles a 16th century video nasty, there's some emotional power too. There's also more humour than in the 2006 production: particularly in Houston's manic Titus, looking like a particularly over-the-top television chef serving the fateful pie.

There's some sterling voice work: the incessant rain and the horrible acoustics could have much of the play unintelligible but Houston, Dyfan Dwyfor's Lucius and Matthew Needham's simpering Saturninus are particularly strong. Obi Abili is an excellent Aaron, never descending to pantomime villainy, which, sadly, could not be said for Indira Varma's wicked queen. Special plaudits though to Ian Gelder who not only imbues Marcus Andronicus with a high degree of dignity, turning him to the moral focus of the way, but he does so while suffering from a bout of laryngitis.

When one sees productions as rich and coherent as this one, one does wonder just why this play was hardly performed until 50 years ago and is still rarely performed even now – perhaps theatres can't get the first-aid staff.