I have visions of tabloid journalists staggering from their favourite watering hole rubbing their hands in glee when they get wind of a new production of this play. Why? Well, it is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays which pulls few punches and affords the opportunity for macabre effects which can provoke nausea among more delicate audience members. In tabloid terms, that translates to flocks of people collapsing and being delivered to overworked A & E departments en masse. Headline-grabbing stuff, perhaps. And there is no doubt that this play can sometimes be stomach-churning. The first time I saw it, one of the friends watching it with me gradually turned a whiter shade of pale through the first half, and refused to return for the second session preferring to seek solace with substantially more than a nip of brandy in the bar.
In this extremely impressive and highly creative version by Malachite Theatre, the raw butchery encapsulated in the play is kept in check, used only as necessary to push forward the story, rather than being deliberately bloodthirsty merely for impact. But there's actually a more fascinating and more important facet of this production than simple blood and gore. The play is being performed in St Leonard's Church in Shoreditch, and the venue itself becomes an integral part of the play. The church sports large pillars at its entrance, and inside more pillars give the impression of Roman or semi-ancient architecture which suits both the atmosphere and Shakespeare's story particularly well. Moreover, the peeling paintwork in the church evokes a kind of war-torn, weary and semi-dilapidated feeling to the setting (and I mean no disrespect to the church members struggling to maintain their building – some of which is already receiving some TLC). With music from the early 1920s and costumes from the same era we get a mixed atmosphere of Roman civilisation and the military mood of the late World War I era. It's an interesting blend which at least for me raised no unsettling conflicts or issues.
Charles Cromwell is the successful Roman general Titus Andronicus who has just beaten the Goths in battle. Titus is an extraordinary man, and not just in the fighting department. He has managed to father 25 sons (and, no, that's NOT a typo, by the way). And 21 of them have died in the service of their country alongside their father in many wars. Apart form his obvious sexual prowess, Titus is a man of honour and one who prides himself on respecting the Roman state. So much so that he is prepared to kill one of his remaining male offspring when his son challenges the emperor's right to marry Titus's daughter, Lavinia. A harsh kind of father one might think, even by Roman standards. But Titus's troubles are only just beginning. When the emperor Saturninus, decides to take the hand of the Queen of the Goths, she swears to get her revenge on Titus, and her sons rape Lavinia, cut off her hands and remove her tongue. When Titus discovers what has happened, he decides to take his own revenge and does so in spectacularly brutal and uncompromising style and, come the end of the play, bodies pile-up like a house of cards collapsing.
If fringe productions raise doubts in your mind about professionalism or quality, you can instantly dismiss all of those considerations here. Malachite Theatre have recruited a very strong, experienced and talented cast, led by an equally determined and methodical director, Benjamin Blyth, who seems to have all angles covered in a thoughtful and holistic interpretation of this notorious play. The integrity of the piece lies in the fact that each element of the production fits with everything else resulting in, as I also said in another recent review, a seamless whole. The action takes place throughout the church – sometimes from the large balconies at either side of the auditorium and at one point even from behind a large clock on the upper floor. Even the church bell gets a chance to be in on the action, and it is deafeningly loud! The human members of the cast provide extremely watchable and very powerful, compelling performances, and the standard is uniformly high from Charles Cromwell's excellent Titus, right through to the minor roles.
The setting does provide some difficulties – the acoustics offer particular challenges to the actors and it is sometimes difficult to hear everything that is said. But one does get used to the conditions after a while, and it is not very different to the experience, say, of theatre in the round, or even open air theatre where audibility is often problematic.
In spite of those challenges (and considerable efforts to reduce their impact) Malachite Theatre and Benjamin Blyth have come up with a version of 'Titus Andronicus' which is hugely engaging and which eschews the bloody sensationalism of the tabloids in favour of an honest and creatively inventive interpretation which, for me at least, provided everything that I could have wished for. Top-notch stuff and highly recommended.