"One of the stupidest, most uninspired plays ever written", snorted T S Eliot of Titus Andronicus; a play unloved and largely unperformed from the 18th century until the 1950s. With several major productions scheduled this year, including one at Stratford, one at the Globe and one here in Bristol, Titus, it seems, has again come of age.
But even if we have developed an Elizabethan tolerance, or even taste, for gore and savagery - Titus was Shakespeare's biggest hit in his day - the play remains problematic. One of the earliest of his works, it is stuffed full of a formal rhetoric which Shakespeare soon abandoned and which now alienates.
Director Andrew Hilton tackles the savagery with decorum (the rape and dismembering of Lavinia takes place off stage), with the action relocated to the 18th century. A consequence of this, however, is to focus our attention on the text, reinforced by the sustained absence of even minimal props.
Unfortunately the considerable challenge of delivering already indigestible stretches of speech to a modern audience are made even more taxing by a falling off of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory's usual impeccable standard of verse and prose-speaking, with Bill Wallis as Titus and Lucy Black as Tamora among the guilty parties.
In truth, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory seems on surer ground with comedy than tragedy, something it shares with the much-better resourced RSC. The company's 2004 Macbeth disappointed and I have to confess here to an inability to erase memories of Wallis, veteran actor though he is, playing Mr Ploppy in BBC's Blackadder.
Still, credit to the company and the director for taking on one of the Bard's more challenging works and the production begins brightly enough with spirited performances from Paul Currier as Saturninus and Philip Buck as Bassianus, sons of the late Roman Emperor, both vying for the throne.
I didn't, in the end, find Titus "thoroughly entertaining and moving", to quote Hilton; part of which is undoubtedly to do with the play and part the production, which ultimately fails to locate the heart of this dark and deeply troubling work.
- Pete Wood