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Titus Andronicus at Swan Theatre - Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Unmissable violent Shakespeare play with a Tarantino edge
There is something very Tarantino-esque about this latest Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.

Maybe that's because despite all the brutality and gore, it is also laced with a wicked sense of dark humour. When a play opens with a sinister looking nun smoking over a set of coffins, you know this isn't going to be an average show.

Katy Stephens is electrifying as Queen Tamora

It was also interesting to note that the audience was littered with actors keen to see this production, including Being Human actor Russell Tovey, David Bradley from the Harry Potter movies and, more recently, Broadchurch, plus RSC favourites including Jonathan Slinger.

Director Michael Fentiman has plenty to work with in this hugely violent play - one of the lesser known and least performed of Shakespeare's works, perhaps as the subject matter isn't an easy one. It's a tale that takes revenge to another level. There's rape and murder for starters, not to mention a mother being fed her two dead sons in a pie.

The story revolves around victorious Roman General Titus Andronicus (Stephen Boxer), who has overcome Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Katy Stephens), and killed her eldest son. When the new Roman emperor makes Tamora his wife, the position of power gives the manipulative queen an opportunity to gain bloody revenge on her nemesis.

Stephen Boxer (Titus Andronicus) and Rose Reynolds (Lavinia)

With Tamora's consent, her two sons avenge their mother by raping and mutilating Titus' daughter, Lavinia. The plot also sees two of Titus' sons executed after being implicated in a murder with the General wrongly led to believe they will be freed if he cuts off his own hand.

But as Titus realises who is behind his misery, he shows that vengeance is a dish best served cold – slaughtering Tamora's sons like pigs and then cooking them down into a pie that he feeds her. I can still hear the drips of blood falling into the pot as he slices their throats while they hang upside down.

The final scene has remnants of Reservoir Dogs as sharp-suited foes gather for a dinner party and end up splattering blood and bodies everywhere.

You can probably tell that this is an extremely graphic production, and not one for the faint-hearted. Blood pours throughout. Yet despite the savagery, it is also incredibly stylish.

Rome is transformed into a 1930s Spanish civil war-type setting with the men in dark chic suits surrounded by eery nuns and hooded priests. The Goths, in stark comparison, are tattooed with wild hair to match their raw emotions.

Lavinia's tortured soul is heartbreaking in Titus Andronicus

Although not quite fitting in with the era, Queen Tamora's two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, send a chill to the bone as teenage modern day hoodlums, circling their prey on bicycles, wearing hoodies and full of raging attitude. They are beguilingly cruel, yet not the only young mercenaries on stage who add a chill of menace to the proceedings.

It's the mix of this new talent alongside old safe hands that works extraordinarily well.

Boxer and Stephens in the lead roles are excellent, but Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward making their RSC debuts as the Goth brothers Chiron and Demetrius are wonderfully chilling. John Hopkins, more recognised as DCI Barnaby's sidekick in Midsomer Murders, also showed an impressive comic turn as the emporer, Saturninus.

Titus Andronicus may be a particularly brutal play, but the dark humour in this production transforms it to more than just blood and gore. It's an unmissable night of entertainment.

Titus Andronicus , RSC production
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
May 16 - October 26, 2013
Tickets cost from £12 from the Box office on 0844 800 1110 or
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Why? See Shakespeare's goriest play
When: Until October 26
Phone: 0844 800 1110
Where: The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: £12 - £34
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