Titus Andronicus (The Swan 16th May to 25th October)

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.


Reviews and Previews

My Titus Andronicus Storify page



What happened to the RSC's long ensemble?

The RSC long ensemble gala in the Swan 2011. The gala was to raise funds for James Gale and his family.

Updated 6th January 2013. Thanks to updates from RSC long ensemble audience members.

After I saw Debbie Korley and Dharmesh Patel in the RSC’s young people’s King Lear at the Theatre Royal in York recently, I started to wonder what the rest of the RSC’s long ensemble were dong now. I had seen some of long ensemble working in the theatre over the past year, and heard about other things they’d done since the long ensemble project ended after a residency New York in the Summer of 2011. The long ensemble was made up of 44 actors and started in Stratford in the Spring of 2009 with As You Like It (dir by Michael Boyd) and The Winter’s Tale (dir by David Farr). These two plays were joined in the Summer of 2011 by Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar. For me the success of the long ensemble came the year after with Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet and David Farr’s King Lear. Both plays played with time and space and for me the plays worked well with the transition from the Courtyard theatre to the new RST (via Newcastle and the Roundhouse). It was the long ensemble that opened the new RST and brought the RSC home – so to speak. The partnership between Jonjo O’Neill and Sam Troughton, as Mercutio and Romeo, brought an energy to the project, but also demonstrated how a partnership built up over a period of time could work so well.

I am sure that it was hoped that the actors and directors would move on to other things, and that some would return to the RSC.

There’s been a few long ensemble reunions in 2012. The first was the Duchess of Malfi reuniting Adam Burton and Tunji Kasim at the Old Vic. Another reunion was down the road from the Old Vic, at the Young Vic, where Sam Troughton, Mariah Gale and Gruffudd Glyn could be seen in Three Sisters. As well as Three Sisters it seems that Sam Troughton has been very busy since he left the long ensemble. He was in A Streetcar Named Desire in Liverpool, and Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court, as well as The Town on television. Mariah Gale is currently in Gruesome Playground Injuries at the Gate Theatre.

Later in the year, at the Old Vic, after being in Children’s Children at the Almeida, Darrell D’Silva was in the very successful Hedda Gabler. Forbes Masson will be playing Banquo alongside James McAvoy’s Macbeth Westminster studios. was in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, plating Mr Tumnus, for Threesixty Theatre in Kensington Gardens. The production was directed by long ensemble director Rupert Goold. He also starred in the Belgrade Theatres Crackers. There were also glimpses of Forbes supporting Melanie Masson’s on ITV’s X Factor.

The RSC women seemed to have done well since the long ensemble project ended and I enjoyed, Noma Dumezweni, Katy Stephens and Mariah Gale’s audio performances as the three witches from Macbeth in the Staging Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum. Noma Dumezweni was also in Bola Agbaje’s play, Belong, at the Royal Court in the Spring of 2012 and will be in The Feast at the young Vic from February. I managed to see Katy Stephens, who was excellent in Calixto Bieito’s Forests, but missed her playing Laura in The Father at the Belgrade theatre in Coventry. Katy is currently playing the fairy in the Belgrade Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty. Kirsty Woodward was fantastic in Kneehigh’s Steptoe and Son, which I saw at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and at the start of 2012, I saw her in The Way of the World Sheffield Crucible.

Kathryn Hunter joined the long ensemble in the second year of the project, and made a quick exit in the middle of the Roundhouse season. She went on to revive her as Peter the Red Ape in Kafka’s Monkey, which I thought was a stunning piece of physical theatre and then returned to the RSC in A Tender Thing this autumn.

One thing that has been surprising is how few of the long ensemble returned to Stratford after the long ensemble project finished. Though Jonjo O’Neill returned to the RSC in a very successful Richard III in the summer of 2012, it has taken awhile for a group of actors to return to the RSC to work together. Indeed, it has taken over a year for four members of the long ensemble to work together again in the Swan in Stratford. Adam Burton, Paul Hamilton, Patrick Romer, and James Tucker are now back in Stratford performing in the long ensemble in the Swan and Ansu Kabia is playing Nim in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Greg Hicks will return to the RSC in 2013 to play Claudius in Hamlet. Oliver Ryan is another member of the long ensemble to return to Stratford for the 1013 Summer season, and long ensemble director, David Farr, will be directing Hamlet.

Sadly Peter Shorey and James Gale have passed away.

And what happened to the other long ensemble directors? After directing a very good Taming of the Shrew for the RSC Winter season 2012, Lucy Bailey returns to the RSC for the Winter 2013 to direct The Winter’s Tale. Greg Doran,who directed the long ensemble interlude, Morte D’Arthur, took over the RSC as Artistic Director in September 2012 and I am now awaiting the announcement of his first season. He is currently directing The Orphan of Zhao in the Swan.

And the Artistic director, Michael Boyd what’s he doing now? Well, he left the RSC in September 2012, but his final production as a director at the RSC, Boris Godunov is now in the Swan.

I think some people felt that the long ensemble was too large to work well, and that many of the actors didn’t really get chance to use to really shine. However, the long ensemble did give some actors a chance to play a range of parts. Sam Troughton showed he could play both the lead and bit parts with great skill. Indeed, he produced was exceptional as a Lord in The Winter’s Tale and entertaining as an energetic and angry Romeo in Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s no surprise to see that Sam Troughton has gone on to play a range of parts since leaving the RSC, and his Mercutio, Jonjo O’Neill, has also shown his range and he is getting great reviews at the National Theatre in The Effect,

Other actors, who showed some promise in the long ensemble do not seem to have done other things. For example, Dyfan Dwyfor played a much more emotional Romeo than Troughton, when I saw him understudy Troughton early in the Straford run. I have not seen that Dwyfor has been in the theatre, since leaving the RSC and even the long ensemble has not changed the transient nature of most actors’ lives. I am hoping that Debbie Korley and Dharmesh Patel will go on to do more than the Young People’s Shakespeare. Both have demonstrated through this vehicle that they can do more than waiting women and bit parts and I look forward to seeing them in other things in the future.

I will have missed many long ensemble appearances, so please let me know of any others that are not here, or about anything you’ve seen with an actor from the long ensemble in it.

Update 10th March 2013

I have recently see Noma Dumezweni in Feast at the Young Vic theatre and Sam Troughton in Bull at Sheffield Crucible. Katy Stephens and David Rubin are also returning to Stratford over the Summer to work in the Swan.


My Long ensemble blogs

The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It

As You Like It, Newcastle 2009

Katy Stephens’ Hair

Julius Caesar

The RSC ensemble debate

King Lear

Romeo and Juliet

RSC, South Bank Show

The RSC Comes Home

Romeo and Juliet again

Antony and Cleopatra part 1

Antony and Cleopatra part 2

RSC Revealed

New Writing at the Hampstead Theatre

Full details about the long ensemble project can be found here.