Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's early and seldom performed tragedy, ought to chime well with modern sensibilities given our current appetite for the films of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Craven which offer a similar mixture of gore galore, horror and black comedy. Last performed at the some Swan 15 years ago but distasteful still to many critics; what sort of reception will this "carnival of carnage" receive nowadays?
Well, I saw two members of the audience making a premature exit. This is a play, don't forget, which depicts the rape and subsequent dismemberment of a woman, self-mutilation and, most famously, the slaughter, cooking and feeding of two sons to their mother baked in a pie.
Not that director Bill Alexander pours on the gore. Lavinia's assault and subsequent 'trimming', as one character has it, takes place offstage and the use of stage blood is restrained. Restraint, in fact, is the keyword for this production which features minimal staging and, most critically, a very reined in performance by the excellent David Bradley as the eponymous Roman general.
Rangy, gaunt, he cuts an ascetic, rather than a martial figure; indeed it is some while before he begins to impose himself. Of course, as with Lear, there is a danger of starting off at too high a pitch which leaves an actor nowhere to go when the passion builds. But while Bradley leaves us in no doubt that he is a fine actor and undoubtedly finds the pathos in the more muted scenes, he is too quiescent.
By contrast, Joe Dixon as the villainous Moor, Aron, who masterminds the carnage, exults in his devilry - and the devil often has the best tunes. Dixon, who was very good in the The Malcontent and The Roman Actor last year, is simply superb and one looks forward to his tackling some of the major Shakespearian roles.
There is fine support too, particularly from Eve Myles as Lavinia, Maureen Beattie as Tamora, and John Lloyd Fillingham, excellent as the debauched, rather camp, Emperor Saturninus.
The comedy is muted; the audience unsure when, or whether, to laugh. This Titus will win few converts, but is worth seeing if only for Dixon and Tim Mitchell's beautiful lighting.
- Pete Wood