By the interval I wanted to scream and shout and tell everyone they must rush to see Michael Fentiman’s rangy production of Titus Andronicus at The Swan theatre in Stratford, and give it the universal thumbs up. By the famous blood soaked denouement though there was an equal feeling of some strange absence, or not quite grasping it. As if, like Titus, I had had my right my hand cut off, so simply had no affirmative thumb left, simultaneously wondering if the real problem is indeed a play that some have described as un-stageable. There are a great many things though to praise about this hyper slick, High-Production-value show, above all the richly layered and deeply moving performance by Stephen Boxer as Titus, the martial Roman whose own actions in mutilating the son of the Goth Queen Tamara precipitate the baked-in-a-pie revenge horrors to come, in a tragedy that seems to engage in a kind of theatrical aversion therapy. Yet in the end the poetic symmetry talked about in the notes, mirroring the fatal actions and consequences among all the characters, excepting that ultimately tragic victim Lavinia, the feminine brutalised in everyone, is strangely lost to so much business and invention. A phantom thumb of gladiatorial approval hovers a little more uncertainly then – whether those about to die, which is nearly everyone on stage, are really saluting pure Shakespeare or not.

What is most refreshing about this Titus though is its energy and immediacy, mixed with a deal of humour, especially effective in the intimate environment of the wonderful little Swan theatre round. With the commitment and skill of the RSC behind it, and its decidedly young cast too, it certainly challenges that old cliché of dismissing one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays as nothing more than a bums-on-seats pot boiler, catering to the worst excesses of Elizabethan bear and human baiting. The hugely popular Titus, written around 1592, and at the moment Shakespeare first appears on the London scene with overlooked histories like Henry VI, is a play that needs and deserves rediscovery and reappraisal, perhaps especially in our hyper violent and violently visual age, as the programme notes stress. A play where Shakespeare seems to reach to the greatest extremes of gory horror, and of himself on the edge of hysteria, yet in order to summon such astonishing poetry, that gushes out on stage like unstaunched arterial blood, or a symphony of human tears. Above all though, it reminds that among all the stage business, what is always true of Shakespeare is that he is also engaged in an almost private argument about maintaining his own extraordinary poetic function and flow, his overall vision, hence tongues, heads, hands and even thumbs are not just incidental, but a metaphor for spiritual and moral mutilations, that might silence any poet, set against the capacity of the human spirit to transcend, or simply repeat its own pathology. That alone marks Titus’s importance to the whole of Shakespeare’s work, while perhaps a play that thirty years later Ben Jonson would commend as a living masterpiece, along with Kid’s The Spanish Tragedy, was the moment of his first liberation, and Shakespeare’s revolt against the obvious parameters of conventional revenge drama too. Certainly the poetic and political themes of all Shakespeare’s plays are at work here and this production can only aid that important reappraisal.

Catering is of course much on the menu in Titus, and since a production is so knowingly referential, Fentiman might have made even more of today’s surfeit of TV Master Chefs, although there are very funny and clever touches in just that bain marie vein, like Lavinia’s armful fight with a boiled egg, followed by an attempt to read the runes in salt, that goes on too long, or two bloody heads and a hand seemingly vacuum packed courtesy of Heston Bloomenthal’s Fat Duck. Its realism and contemporary echo was absolutely right and suitably revolting too, like the blood that gushes out when Lavinia first opens her mouth after her rape, that made us gasp and might make a psychopath wake up to human pain and suffering. It is also why the horror of Titus works much better in a small theatre, if the gore and guts are done as convincingly as this. Yet the endless modern cultural allusions in the staging and costumes are also part of the problem, in a play so about the power and impotence of language, in the face of tongue denying violence, rape and hatred. Just as the programme references everything from Quentin Tarantino to the Hammer Horror film Theatre of Blood then – “ooh, my babies-my babies” – here is a recipe that smacks of just one cook too many, at times, or the issue of fusion cooking itself, which I think has long been an RSC one. As for the inevitable dilemma of the play, Shakespeare of course knew the potential hypocrisy of drawing in and pleasing the crowds, while finding the moral and meaning, more importantly the depth of thought and feeling, but that is the struggle of his art, of Titus itself. This production, heralded back in May with the revealing filmic tag line “There will be blood“, and today’s supposedly smart money too are certainly on the likes of Tarantino nowadays, who in my opinion lost the plot with Django, selling out to the winning, violent and glossy formula. It is why the funny faced wunderkind always gets so itchy when anyone dares to challenge him on the real purpose of violence in his movies. This Titus, and its creators, are similarly a little uncertain about whether they want ‘Shakespeare Minceur’ or a quick ticket to Hollywood, and if it is the pastry dish or the true meat that make the play work, the words.

Leaving too much of an open door on violent video games too, movies or past productions, and that oddly American world building that defines drama today and has these particular Roman Soldiers as irritating action models of Dath Vader, seems to infect the performances too. So John Hopkins’ Saturninus, funny and skilful at times, seems to be snatched straight from Commodus in the movie Gladiator, as one of the Goth queens gets lost down a blow-dry disco. Shakespeare loved actors, at least ones who really serve the purpose of the whole play, and actors love Shakespeare, if allowed to find the depth and song of character through his words, not paste trendy, hyper modern interpretations on top. Katy Stephens’ very sexy Tamara is strong, to prove that women can be just as nasty as men, or that Cat Woman is not dead. Appropriately then one grinning member of the audience last night was the spiky haired classical violinist Nigel Kennedy, who certainly has the talent, like this production, but whose mutilation of his own middle class vowels, in that search to be the archetypal common man, or comfortable in his own skin, can also get a little irritating, mate. Then mutilation of language and poetry is also the point of this play, as is rather hauntingly captured in Dwane Walcott’s shit-stained clown and pigeon rearer, hanged at the back of the set in mute agony, murdered by all the high metaphors.

For all the bits though, even four hundred years ago history’s stage was already so steeped in human blood that Shakespeare’s eternal attempt to engage that dialogue between past and present, the meaning of meaningful history; or to find ‘the contemporary’, did not quite mean he had to reference every act of world mutilation, or produce a cultural exegesis worthy of Derida. In a production that is supposedly first doing justice to Shakespeare then, it might have been enough just to underline the presence of Ovid’s Metamporhoses in the play, that referencing of the story of Philomel, to explore how Shakespeare’s own visions develop in seeking transformation, or in engaging in such theatre at all, without throwing in the kitchen sink of everyone’s attempts at Titus-via-Tarantino. It is also fudges Shakespeare’s strongest themes; pagan versus the supposedly spiritual values of ancient Roman, Catholic interpretations of life’s feast, yet worship of what is really a blood sacrifice too, in a play so much about religion and ritual. But above all the mutilation to the really powerful and creative masculine, when the feminine, inside and out, becomes a source of violence. They are themes that are so deep in Shakespeare they are also too big to be sustained when the Goths are reduced to Asbo worthy adolescent bovver boys, who would probably never get to see a supposedly transformative play anyhow. Which raises Titus’s complex question of whether the orgiastic representation of violence, our visual culture is now so steeped in, is pornographic, worthy pressure-valve entertainment, or just breeds more violence. The young actors did well, but for me were just a little too young and mod deliquent.

There is that long present issue of ‘RSC Land’ Shakespeare too, often a kind of never-never land of all things to all Romans, certainly in sets and settings, that forgets Elizabethan theatre had very little staging and was first one of declamation and poetry. So while all that steamy horror, bawdry and cruelty happened down on London’s Bankside, to make Shakespeare much question the purpose of theatre itself, that in Titus almost vomits out of his system, it was also a place where troupes were also staging bouts of contemporary versification in the great entertainment battle, like modern slam poetry. In the end Titus is a defence of poetry, poetry not nearly regarded enough either, which the cast do certainly grasp wonderfully at times, but who might be given a little more space and, frankly, tongue. The older actors then, like Boxer, or Richard Durden’s dignified Marcus have to carry the poetic authority of the play and thankfully they manage it well and sometimes transcendently. The oddest performance is Kevin Harvey’s Aaron, who has great presence and charisma and a clear future, but who fails when he attempts to explicate verse that should be flying with meanings, found through their own rhythms. Aaron is of course an extraordinary part, that literal black devil, with no obeisance to the politically correct, and in his size and scope a kind of cross between Othello and Iago. Again humour, mixed with the tenderness of trying to save his own child, is what lifts his own performance back towards the gods.

That exploration of art’s pulsing and bleeding arteries though, or Shakespeare’s, is most strikingly achieved when one of the Andronicus brothers reaches his hand down from the gods, into the real and metaphorical hell pit of rape and murder below, which paradoxically is also the womb of Shakespeare’s word making, dark and light. That is why it was so right to stage this at The Swan, where the deepest metaphor of those wooden O’s, those early theatre wombs, and with all the sexual meanings denied to eager schoolboys too, suddenly comes alive, if only momentarilly. That is also why interpreting and performing Shakespeare should be first about the simplest and purest approach to peeling the words off the page and popping them in and out of the actors’ mouths. The sets and designs, and these are generally very effective, including the sacrificial black ash that falls from a deaf heaven, come afterwards. Speaking of which, when the distracted general takes an ultimate revenge by feeding Tamara’s rapine children to their mother, it is oddly done by back staging the celebrated banquet, at the very moment the audience should be most implicated in the action, in the round, and face to face. This audience needed an even more direct invitation to the ghastly feast then, even a bit more blood, and to the sobbing anguishes the play is filled with.

Perhaps our audiences could just not stomach such dry entertainments as Shakespeare without the frills though, or the superfluous BMX’s, but here, just too many times the langauge and the real pain is sacrificed to the visually impressive stage business, which is a pity because when the actors catch it they and the play are glorious and uniquely powerful. Sometimes that staging is very effective, like the nurses at the start, crosses between Catholic nuns and hijab wearing hand maidens, the martial drums or the hook lifted corpses, but at others it impedes the actors’ ability to let rip with the verse and the pure feeling. In fact, despite all the boys on the block being Tarantino fans, Fentiman is not formulaic and so takes many risks in pressing to the outer reaches of gallows humour, the superbly grotesque, like Boxer’s macabre dinner service in a dress, so exploring both our reaction to and need for horror, always on the edge of mad humour, and revealing how Shakespeare pre-empts Brecht’s and Artaud’s theatres of alienation and cruelty by 400 years. Yet, for any criticisms for not completely capturing the poetic integrities of the play, with the raw energy of this debut production, the skill of Boxer and the fact there is truly never a dull moment, that phantom thumb must go up high. “We who have died with you, salute you!” One of the great strengths of this production is to make such good use of The Swan too, also pointing the RSC away from cream-tea tourist Shakespeare in Stratford and back to origins in those rounds in London. It is also a Titus for our tasty, nasty yet often over-packaged times, and remembering that the play is flawed too, a comparatively immature work compared to masterpieces like Lear, in its own way equally horrific, confirmation that the RSC is hot on the trail of excellence and perhaps even better recipes to come.

David Clement-Davies

David is currently writing a book on Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund.

TITUS ANDRONICUS is at The Swan Theatre Stratford until October 23rd 2013.

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