The trailer for this production promises lots of blood, and you go you won’t be disappointed if that’s what you expect. Of course, if that’s your thing, one of the highlights has to be sitting in the front row and getting splattered in blood. However, it is stage blood so it washes out very easily, and it’s part of the fun of live theatre.
One of the great things about blog reviews is that you can see a production develop and grow before reviewing it. I first saw the production on its first preview, and I knew that this production was going to be good, but there was little stage blood (because they had run out) and it hadn’t found the pace that it’s now got in the middle of the run. Now this is not to be missed production with an ensemble that are working extremely well together in the Swan theatre across three shows ( also A Mad World My Masters and Candide).
When the audience enters the stage they are faced with three bodies on stretchers being tended to by nurses. There is a strange speech coming from the radio. One of the nurses (Badria Timimi), moves forwards and lights up a cigarette and the play has begun. This is a strange world,which is not in the past or present or future, but in a mixture of all three.
It is not just the blood that is a highlight in this production Katy Stephens is absolutely mesmerizing as Tamora. Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward are outstanding as Chiron and Demetrius. Kevin Harvey plays Aaron with a lovely musical voice and with such skill. The way Aaron says ‘Just a line in Horace’ gives it such power. His love for the baby is very moving. We see Tamora, Aaron, Chiron and Demetrius supporting each other from the start as they are in chains and are captives of the Roman Army. This gives a clear rationale why these four stick together, and support each other. I particularly liked the two Goth brothers cycling round the stage before the rape of Lavinia (Rose Reynolds), and the way that Aaron reasons with them that rape is the best course of action leading to the horrific scene. These are four performances that you just can’t take your eyes off.
What is exceptional about Katy Stephens’ performance is that at the start she is playing the captive emotional mother and the piercing howl she gives when her eldest son is butchered, but throughout the performance she becomes bolder as the Empress and transforms. She also get to wear the most amazing outfits and shoes. Tamora is particularly chilling when she sets up the murder of Bassianus, and is unmoved by Lavinia’s pleading, delighting in the fact that her sons are about to rape and mutilate her. There’s a lovely moment in the final scene where Lavinia stares at Tamora across the dining table, and Tamora, at first puzzled, realises that Lavinia has revealed all. Why does Tamora take another spoonful of the pie when she knows the truth? For me, this moment revealed her shock and horror at finding out the truth, but she hesitates to believe it at first.
Stephen Boxer gives a very solid performance as Titus. Like King John, he makes crucial errors in moving from war to peace. His decision to murder Alarbus (Nicholas Prasad) in front of his family is disastrous, as is his rash slaughter of his son Mutius (Harry Mcentire), for disobeying him. It is possible to believe that he oscillates through madness and grief and it becomes hard to believe that he will be taken in by Tamora’s playacting as Revenge, giving an energy and tension to the penultimate scene.
Rose Reynolds performance as Lavinia is extremely good. She plays as determined and it is right she fights back when Titus smothers her in the final scene. As other bloggers have commentated it is not always clear why Marcus (Richard Durden) does not move to hug Lavinia when he finds her mutilated in the woods.
There’s a great performance from John Hopkins as Saturninus. He brings such a wry humour to the role. For example when he is to be crowned he turns to the audiences and gives a satisfied smile. At one point he is sat in a bath wearing his crown, which is a very humorous, and this is added to by the fact that he is also naked.
The scenes with Lucius and the Goths are lovely contrasts to the Roman scenes. The drums bring in a thundering beat at a moment in the play, when the it feels that things can’t get any worse. Titus has been tricked into chopping off his hand, Lucius and has been banished and Lavinia has been horrifically mutilated. Sarah Ridgeway plays a very convincing Goth queen showing her versatility across several roles this season. It was a great decision to go into the interval at the moment when Lucius is branded by the Goths and there is a screech in the air.
The finale is great fun. the fact that most of the characters are dead on stage leads to some very serious lines becoming very funny. We are left with two startling images. The first is the unrepentant Aaron left to die buried in a pit with just his head exposed, and the second is Young Lucius walking across the stage with Aaron’s baby. Young Lucius spies the pie slice and picks it up as Aaron horrifies looks on. The lights go down and we are left to wonder if the child will slaughter the baby, and the brutality will continue to the next generation.
This is Michael Fentiman’s debut at the Royal Shakespeare Company as a director, but his experience as an assistant director on shows such as Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet has clearly paid off. Some of the devices used in this production have been influenced by his pervious work such as the use of the raised platform.
There’s even a magic trick in the production. What happens to the bodies that are on stage when you enter the auditorium? How do they disappear whilst you watch.
This summer is an outstanding Royal Shakespeare Company season in both theatres , which is reassuring after the disappointing lack-lustre shipwreck season last year. There is more to come including Richard II and hopefully an announcement of a Summer 2014 season coming soon.
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