Titus Andronicus at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse review: a bloodless take on Shakespeare’s revenge horror

·2-min read
Katy Stephens and Kibong Tanji in Titus Andronicus  (Camilla Greenwell)
Katy Stephens and Kibong Tanji in Titus Andronicus (Camilla Greenwell)

There’s a reason Shakespeare’s early Roman revenge play is seldom done: it’s a mix of the horrific and the absurd, a nihilistic race to the bottom embracing rape, murder, mutilation and cannibalism. Successful productions embrace the gore and excess. This one removes the claret completely.

Directed by Jude Christian, this production features an all-female or non-binary ensemble to no obvious purpose or effect, and is almost decorous. Cluttered with conceptual gimmicks, well-spoken but bloodless, it’s the sort of show a well-heeled girls’ school might mount.

There’s still a nerdy pleasure to be had in the moments of fine poetry and echoes of future greatness to be found in this rarity. The character of the cynically plotting, heroically unrepentant Moor Aaron is like a prototype of Othello and Iago rolled into one, for instance. He is given roaring life here by Kibong Tanji, in the production’s standout performance.

Mostly, though, Christian’s staging alternates between the bland and the cartoonish. Katy Stephens is the ageing general Titus, and she speaks all the words in the right order with the correct intonation but without any sense of genuine feeling. As Titus’s brother Marcus, Sophie Russell seems almost tranquilised, listing the violations wrought upon Titus’s daughter Lavinia as if reading a shopping list.

From left Mei Mei MacLeod, Kirsten Foster and Mia Selway (Camilla Greenwell)
From left Mei Mei MacLeod, Kirsten Foster and Mia Selway (Camilla Greenwell)

As the Goth queen Tamora, whom Titus captured in battle, Kirsten Foster is a hissing caricature of malice. Lucy McCormick’s devious emperor Saturninus, who marries Tamora, strikes ridiculous poses and at one point starts delivering the verse like a lounge singer. The cast also sing jaunty modern songs at the beginning and end of each act: one of them is about a bunny rabbit.

They all wear Kim Jong-Un style tunics and trousers in different colours, which is boring and sometimes makes them hard to differentiate. Beau Holland provides some authentic Shakespearean comedy in a series of doomed role, completely upstaging and subverting the surrounding action.

Christian has also decided that in this candlelit venue, each of the play’s 14 deaths should be represented by a taper being extinguished. Call it snuff theatre. This cumbersome device becomes risible as candles are hacked to bits with knives, melted with a blowtorch, chewed up by a power drill and pulverised by a mallet.

Each newly dead character then ritualistically dunks a circle of wicks into a vat of tallow, symbolizing that a new generation will be born and, presumably, slaughtered. A stage-manager bustles about ensuring everyone has enough candles to butcher. The wax-related shenanigans push the show to a running time of nearly three hours.

Some of the horror visited on Lavinia, and the grisly reprisals Titus exacts on Tamora and her sons as a result, cuts through. But one comes away with a strong impression of a director with no overarching vision for this flawed play, chucking ideas at it in the hope that some will stick.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe; in rep to April 15; buy tickets here