At times in the Riverside Studios the other night I was reminded of the Monty Python sketch about Salad Days as directed by Sam Peckinpah: not just buckets but economy-size vats of blood and slow-motion ballets of agony. Not that director Xavier Leret and KAOS Theatre have exactly chosen an inappropriate work to subject to this treatment: Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's sole unambiguous Jacobean revenge tragedy, with grimly imaginative and sometimes blackly humorous deaths aplenty. Indeed, with this show and Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant Of Inishmore running simultaneously in London, there is likely to be a city-wide shortage of "Kensington Gore" stage blood.
Titus, after all, is the play in which the title character's daughter Lavinia, having been ravished on the corpse of her murdered husband by the sons of Tamora, queen of the Goths, is returned to her father minus hands and tongue so that she cannot identify the perpetrators. Titus himself then chops off his own hand in a vain attempt to ransom the freedom of the penultimate two of his 25 sons (virtually all the others having died in the Gothic wars). All this would be likely to turn anyone's wits, so it's hardly surprising when he cooks the Goth queen's sons in a pie which he then serves to their mother and Roman emperor stepfather.
Not, in short, one of the Bard's subtler offerings, but one frequently regarded by theatre companies as a challenge. In this respect, Leret's bloody staging – on Sarah Blenkinsop's white-tiled (and thus easily moppable) mortuary stage set with glass-fronted observation tank – is a faithful one. Likewise, it does not shrink from laughs; indeed, by portraying the villainous Goth brothers as a pair of idiots not unlike the Yobs in Private Eye's comic strip, it actively seeks them out. The brothers are easily manipulated by Aaron the moor, a classic Jacobean malcontent played by Guy Burgess as a Jamaican gangsta with a Mohawk haircut and an irritatingly erratic patois accent.
Lee Beagley's Titus is aged and exhausted from the start, back from 40 years in the wars: he can be no more drained by the horrors inflicted on him and his family, so the only route left is slow, sonorous madness. Jane Hartley makes the unenviable role of Lavinia into a genuine triumph of mute, bubbling-bloody-mouthed horror; Jack Corcoran, in contrast, fails to turn in a plausible cartoon portrayal of someone half his own age as one of the thuggish brothers. The end result is no less successful than any attempt to find a navigable route through the awkward tone of the play, but no more so either. It all boils down to the observation made by Nick Cave in one of the songs which augment Jules Bushell's original score as the audience files out at the end: people just ain't no good.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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