No one any longer has to make a case for this once-despised play. But, whether it is viewed as a neo-Senecan study in stoic acceptance of grief or a Tarantino-like exploration of extremity, a director needs to take a clear line. While Michael Fentiman's robust Royal Shakespeare Company production is strong on momentary effects, it's not exactly a model of intellectual coherence.
Fentiman and designer Colin Richmond offer a number of competing signals. Ancient Rome becomes a place of Moorish arches and Islamic patterns. At the same time, the rivals for the emperorship sport fascistic armbands, Titus's dead sons are hoisted aloft in bodybags and the Goths, whom this general has been fighting, resemble tattooed punks. Shakespeare himself tells us, as Titus and the Gothic queen Tamora engage in an insensate war of revenge, that Rome is "a wilderness of tigers". But Fentiman's pick'n'mix approach to place and his juxtaposition of high tragedy and low comedy only becomes clear towards the climax. As a Thyestan banquet descends into an orgy of crazed slaughter, we have a nihilistic vision of the modern world endorsed in a final, symbolic gesture by Titus's grandson, implying the revenge cycle will never end.
Like the production, Stephen Boxer's Titus gets better as he goes along. Boxer, a highly intelligent actor, is not my idea of a war-weary veteran and doesn't plumb the depths of pain, but is excellent in the later scenes of vengeful irony. There is also first-rate support from Katy Stephens as a dangerously voluptuous Tamora, Kevin Harvey as the unrepentant villain Aaron, Richard Durden as Titus's unusually sane brother and Rose Reynolds as his mutilated daughter, Lavinia, who here ingeniously spells out the names of her abusers with the aid of a salt-cellar. That's a typically inventive touch in a production full of ideas, such as turning the invading Goths into a percussive band, but it's more notable for its eclectic theatricality than its singleness of purpose.
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