'Titus Andronicus' review — Jude Christian adds a revelatory sleekness to Shakespeare's bloodiest play

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

“Hell hath no fury like an angry Goth,” we’re told late in the blistering new production of Titus Andronicus, soon to be joined by The Winter’s Tale in repertory at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. If that line is itself invented, there’s no denying the show’s fidelity to the nihilistic power of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, which is presented here without a drop of red dye only to acquire an eerie power through its own determined stylisation.

Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus is often dismissed as over-the-top, or remembered for prompting sufficient faints (or walk-outs) that such reactions tend to dominate accounts of this play. (I vividly recall the Globe’s outdoor production in 2014, directed by Lucy Bailey and starring Will Houston, making headlines for the numbers of people unable to stay the course.)

Jude Christian’s current take on the play announces its difference from the start, as the all-female cast make a sleek, even graceful entrance in sleepwear that also suggests the forbidding uniformity of an unspecified work camp: my mind went immediately toward the landscape of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Within minutes, they are regaling us with an introductory song courtesy of Liv Morris and George Heyworth that sets in only semi-facetious context the Bard’s fearless glimpse into a gore-filled abyss. The take-no-prisoners narrative embraces virtually every possible atrocity on its way to an ending that might give even Sweeney Todd pause. I only wish this account of the play didn’t end with the now-inevitable nod to our woebegone modern times, which would appear to be a contractual obligation of every production in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse these days.

How bad can the catalogue of woe in Titus get? Grim enough, the audience is told in song, that they should by comparison “feel better” about their own terrible lives. And soon we’re off on an unforgiving tale of vengeance and retribution that eventuates in the descent into cannibalism of the Roman general, Titus, in a play whose pile-up of corpses exceeds Richard III and King Lear, its nearest runners-up.

How do you communicate the charnel house the characters inhabit without risking self-parody? The director Christian’s clever solution is to allow the gallows humour in the text its due – there are laughs here, believe it or not – while alighting upon a streamlined visual aesthetic that floods the candlelit stage with a baleful power all its own.

Titus has already lost 21 sons by the time we meet him, and it’s a question of when, not if, the death toll will escalate further. The lineup of crazies — possible casualties, all — includes Lucy McCormick’s wild-eyed Roman emperor Saturninus, a presence bendy enough to rival a mad Mr Bean, and Georgia-Mae Myers as the hapless Lavinia, whose bodily eviscerations (Titus’s only daughter loses her hands and her tongue) remain as shocking as ever.

Alerted near the outset that “everyone dies”, we soon discover that the very candles that define the Wanamaker exist here to be snuffed out. Whether snipped, savaged or liquefied, the candles come to represent a citizenry under siege, enmeshed in a rampaging cycle of chaos and bloodshed that makes of the world of the play an outsized abattoir.

Some may be put off by a counterintuitively squeaky-clean set that looks as if it has been polished to within an inch of its life, and by the playfulness with which a buzzing fly is here anthropomorphised for comic relief.

But the play’s progression towards despair, and worse, is powerfully carried by Katy Stephens in the title role, this superb actress exceeding expectation. Not for the first time (she was an astonishing Leonata last summer at this address in Much Ado About Nothing), Stephens exhibits a vocal authority that is increasingly rare in Shakespeare, whether at the Globe or elsewhere.

Stephens’s hair unfurling yet more wildly as Titus’s circumstances worsen, the actress locates a thrilling sonority in “who doth molest my contemplation” – the title character’s grandiose way in the fifth act of asking the basic question, “who’s there”?

And though Titus’s battle with madness is often thought to pale next to that of the more majestic Lear, Stephens honours a misshapen psyche that allows this military man to be referenced as “good” one minute, “fierce” the next, before devolving into a state so abject that it exists beyond emotion. “I have not another tear to shed,” proclaims Titus, though the audience, by that point, very well might.

Titus Andronicus is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse through 15 April. Book Titus Andronicus tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Mei Mei MacLeod as Chiron, Kirsten Foster as Tamora and Mia Selway as Demetrius (Photo by Camilla Greenwell)

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