Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 23 September, 2003

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's only real, gory revenge tragedy. The title character's daughter Lavinia is widowed and then raped by a pair of villainous brothers who then cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her identifying them; Titus then chops off his own hand in a futile attempt to ransom back the last surviving two of his 25 sons; finally, he kills the malefactors, cooks their remains in a pie and serves it to their mother and Roman emperor stepfather. It might seem odd, then, to praise Bill Alexander's RSC production for its thoughtfulness.

Alexander walks a carefully considered line between classical formality and Jacobean excess. He honours the story's antecedents in Ovid and Seneca, which are explicitly acknowledged in the play when the maimed Lavinia points to a book containing Ovid's account of the rape of Philomela as a means of explaining what she herself suffered. A sense of civic ritual is also retained where the text calls for it, especially in the opening scene (now generally believed to be the work of another writer) detailing the election of a Roman emperor.

Elsewhere, the revenge tragedy genre's kinship to black farce is not shirked. Titus' own response when his torments grow insupportable is to pitch beyond grief into laughter, and David Bradley's performance, particularly in the second half, strikes exactly the right note of grim sardonicism. Joe Dixon is also on top form as Aron the Moor, a character so gleefully devoted to villainy that he makes Iago look like a choirboy. Maureen Beattie is, if anything, rather restrained as Tamora, queen of the Goths, Aron's mistress (in every sense) and the mother of Lavinia's rapists; her wickedness is a thing of hard-faced determination rather than overt relish.

There comes a point, though, at which the competing impulses of deliberation and extremity refuse to be resolved. John Lloyd Fillingham plays up the callow immaturity of emperor Saturninus, but does so by mincing, preening and pouting like a sub-sub-Jagger 1970s rock star. Likewise, Eve Myles squanders the tragic potential of Lavinia by playing her pre-mutilation as not just innocent but childish, and later on is frankly annoying in her non-stop wordless whimpering. Alexander takes things at a stately pace (this is one of Shakespeare's shorter plays, but clocks in here at three ands a quarter hours including interval), which robs the piece of momentum without finding a compensating sense of slow inevitability. Polite applause, then, rather than a big hand.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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