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Shakespeare’s goriest play is by no means his most popular one, and I can imagine that some people would find it too distasteful to watch (I had my reservations, initially), but as this production, directed by Michael Fentiman proves, it can be successfully brought to the stage.

Briefly the storyline concerns the titular character who has returned triumphant from the war against the Goths in Rome.  He slays a son of Tamora, queen of the goths, in revenge for his fallen soldiers.  She in turn urges her two remaining sons to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia (which they do in the most horrific fashion, also cutting out her tongue and cutting off her hands so that she cannot identify her attackers).  Titus’s sons are then framed for this grievous crime, and executed.  When Titus discovers the truth, he swears revenge on Tamora and her sons, and – well, it’s safe to say he gets it, although it’s also safe to say that there are no real victors in this play, which ends in a bloodbath (a bloodbath that is as uncomfortably amusing as it is wince-inducing).  Sounds bloodthirsty?  It was, and at the time that it was written, there was a great public appetite for such plays, and Shakespeare was obviously happy to provide one.

This production certainly made me grimace on occasion, but it was extremely compelling and watchable, and even managed to include some dark humour – no mean feat in such a gory play.

Stephen Boxer made an excellent world-weary Titus, whose descent into madness is clear to the audience.  The rest of the cast were also superb in their roles, especially Katy Stephens as the vengeful Tamora, John Hopkins as a very amusing Saturninus, and Kevin Harvey as Aaron – a truly detestable, and strangely charismatic character!  Rose Reynolds was also heartbreaking as the tortured Lavinia, who never finds the happiness she is owed after her brutal attack, and the murder of her husband.

Titus Andronicus is not a play for everyone, and I would recommend that people are aware of the storyline before going to see it.  However, I found it extremely watchable (even if I watched some parts through my fingers!) with excellent performances all round.

(For more information about the Royal Shakespeare Company, or this production, please click here.)

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