Tag Archives: Stratford



Non-stop fun is the stamp of Loveday Ingram’s exuberant, and very sexy production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover for the RSC, in the perfectly proportioned Swan Theatre, Stratford. Complete with hysterical Flamenco forays, touches of tango, a stilt walker, and excellent on-stage band. With a Conchita Wurst look-alike, the bearded lady boy among a tranch of devil masks, in what is very nearly The Rover – The Musical, I half expected someone to break out into Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

Except Naples is the setting for the late 17th Century Restoration play, at Carnival, to turn everyone’s Worlds upside down, then restore them to the same old cynical order. A steely 1920’s cast-iron stairwell backs the simple set, to represent both the keys to the Kingdom and the Whorehouse, in a very hard world, and for the arrival of four exiled English Cavaliers led by Belvile and our particular Don Giovanni, Millmore: Very possibly modelled on the notorious Earl of Rochester, he who penned poems about dildos and things and died at 33 of booze, syphilis, and genius. This production is good Karma, with The Libertine about Rochester’s life on at the Theatre Royal in London, and Millmore is played with wonderful gusto and skilled comic timing by Joseph Millson, giving a tour de force performance he revels in.

From the moment the Prologue is given to the charming and excellent Faye Castelow though, playing Millmore’s equal-to-be, Helena, so that we really know this play was written by a woman, indeed the first English female dramatist and also a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, we are in safe directorial hands. A knowing self-awareness breathes through all the strong performances, that liberates everyone to many kinds of play. Since Millmore is trying to play fast and loose with every pretty woman that meets his eye, so the director’s cuts have played loose too and streamlined things well, if you wonder if cries of “Mummy” or “Kinky” are quite 17th Century.

Then they have gone for knockabout comedy, and ad libs too, including some great audience interaction, not least when Millmore is drunk, that always delights a crowd. If turning a line about old men and impotence on a greying member of an audience that seemed predominantly over sixty might have been a bit close to the bone! No pulling of punches here then, in the lusty manhood stakes. The climax, with an explosion of rose petals from the ceiling, nearly had people up and dancing on their feet and crutches.

This Rover certainly underplays the darker side of Behn’s play, based on one by Thomas Killigrew, where even the finest women could hardly avoid being labelled Wife, Nun, or Whore. The shadows grow in the story of the very funny and then nasty Blunt, the stuttering English Gent with his hand on the purse strings, played wonderfully by Leander Deeny, who is gulled by a prostitute, described in the original cast list as a ‘jilting wench’, into believing he has found true love. There is little time in life’s seething energy for his brand of hurt though, his hatred of being laughed at, so he is driven off stage in the first half by the semi-demonic revellers. Only to return demonically himself in the second half on the edge of doing something very nasty indeed, where a comedy edges toward potential tragedy, to remind us what can happen in the real world.

What is revolutionary in Aphra Behn, and so provides the explosive energy of poetry and thought throughout, is her ‘feminism’ is no mere complaint about manly men, hate of them either, but a cry for woman to be equal in all. Or at least her and Millmore, since by the end you do believe the pair on stage have found their true match. Thus it is two sisters and their kinswoman who set the plot in true motion too, as Florinda longs for Belvile and Helena refuses to disappear into a nunnery. So, disguised as gypsies, they hit the town like the Cavaliers and paint it red.

The main plot sees the honourable Belvile trying to find his lady, against the machinations of the nasty foreigners trying to arrange marriages, and along with a joke about drawing the longest sword, a Toledo blade, a pair of splendid guilded boxer shorts appear, belonging to a very good Don Pedro, endless filthy double entendres ensue, and there’s even a burst of Rule Britannia. The secondary plot involves the Courtesan Angellica Bianca, and since Behn lived when the theatre was very close to the brothel, perhaps reflecting her own initials and sentiments too, who falls for lusty Millmore. Alexandra Gilbreath is both moving and funny as the whore who gives her ‘virgin heart’ away, to no avail. Though a special mention for her slinking side-kick in a bowler, Alison Mckenzie’s knowing Moretta, who gives a nod to Joel Gray’s compere in Cabaret. This is a world that in truth seethed with violence, sex and fear, where a true Courtesan might make much of herself, but the whore and the poor always paid the price in the end, although Blunt shows men can be victims too. Though since Behn was a Royalist – the play is also called The Banish’d Cavaliers – it is Millmore’s poverty, along with his wit and courage, that gives him his nobility and wins him the prize; not only Helena, but her lovely fortune.

You can read reviews of King Lear and Cymbeline below.  David Clement-Davies

The photo shows Faye Castelow and Joseph Millson as Helena and Millmore in the RSC’s production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, in the Swan Theatre Stratford. Copyright Ellie Kurttz.



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In the vein of not being so churlish about Stratford tourism, today’s trip to Charlcote house and grounds was eye-opening and again I met some very warm and interesting folk, as I have in other travels this week. Oh the lovely scale and proportion of Tudor houses, not to mention the colour of the stone, but the place is especially interesting because of that legend about Shakespeare stealing deer from Sir Thomas Lucy and having to flee Stratford for his fairly successful London career! Potential references to Lucy are all over The Merry Wives of Windsor, in the figure of Justice Shallow, so why do we doubt the word of mouth legends so much? The counter argument is it would have been too dangerous to expose such a thing, but are we not capable of imagining that by the time Shakespeare was a successful playwright, composing a work for Hunsdon’s inaugeration into The Garter, the Tudors too were not capable of forgiving the transgressions of youth? The spot was also two miles from the house itself, so Germaine Greer is wrong to knock it down on terms of it not being possible, having to bleed the meat and so on. It doesn’t matter, the legends are part of the fun, and Charlcote is fascinating, not least for the Lucy family themselves, with that Coat of Arms sporting three Luce, sometimes called Lice, a kind of Pike. Appropriate for fishy Shakespearean tales, although if it’s true and Shakespeare had been caught, at the time he could well have been hanged. Of course, being on the side of players, it begs the question what kind of landlord Lucy was, who died in 1600.

I suddenly had an idea to do a kind of Tudor Downton Abbey there, only to learn the Lucys married into the family that owned the home where it was shot, Highclare. They gave their home to the National Trust in 1946, just after the war. My version of Upstairs Downstairs would of course be a lot smellier, filled with plague, Pox and the battles of the Reformation. When Queen Elizabeth visited Charlcote though she liked the place so much she stayed an extra day, which must have worried Sir Thomas a bit, because her train of retainers stretched back down the Stratford road for something like eleven miles. The bill was over £10, a sixth of the price of Shakespeare’s purchase of New Place in 1597, but the Lucys got to put that carved Royal Crest over the doorway, with Honi Soit Qui Mali Pense and ER patterned in red stone. Still, it could be expensive being a Gent, because when the Lucys backed the wrong side in the Civil War, and Charles and Prince Rupert camped in the fields beyond, they kept their estates by paying Cromwell the equivalent of Six million.

The ‘modern’ family were just as interesting, because in the nineteenth century Grand Tour style the Lucys, children and a devoted footman suddenly set off around Europe, with a new-born infant in tow, who died on their two year travels. Another baby was conceived and born en route though and they finally returned, replete with foreign knickknacks and European influences to deck the rebuild on their home, creating a library and dinning room at the back. The great hall, complete with decayed Minstrel’s gallery, was completely remodelled, since Lady Lucy found it so dank and depressing. Back in the day the grounds were first rather oddly redesigned by Capability Brown, absurdly destroying the Tudor Water feature, and straightening the Avon too, right at the back, but they give a lovely sense of the open Warwickshire countryside and all sorts of ideas are underway to bring new things to the house. We learnt this on a very funny little walk with a charming ex mounted policeman, Bob, who had saddled up during the Miner’s Strike and was on his very first day as volunteer and highly enthusiastic tour guide. As we joked about what we did and didn’t know he took us past the Victorian Church, a bit unforgivably built on top of a Norman one, courtesy of Lucy droit de seigneur, where the actor Michael Williams, husband of Dame Judy Dench is buried. I met him when I was working at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre but apparently the great actress, and M in the Bond films, has a home nearby.

It was actually very moving too to see how the volunteer system works, not only there, but in places like the YHA, and Stratford’s is one of the most relaxed, and had given Bob for one a new purpose and lease of life. His house is on a distant hill opposite and we almost had a tour of that too! Bob also works at the RSC, and a good many of the houses and events in Stratford, including The Birthplace, both draw on people’s talents and help create living communities. At Charlcote they are raising the number of volunteers from 300 to 500, apparently, or perhaps that’s around the Trust, so I hope an exploitation culture is not too much underway in strapped times, a kind of 21st Century feudalism – The National Trust were not nearly as generous about letting me in as The Birthplace Trust – but down the Stratford Youth Hostal they were also handing out prizes and plaudits for long-standing volunteers. It reminded me of a trip to the Grand Canyon, and learning about how Roosevelt engaged regeneration with a national works programmes. Is there such a thing as National imagination these days?

Bob’s first little group of precisely three parted ways warmly, just by the bee hives and Tamworth pig enclosure, beyond the old eel trap that once-upon-a-time let through the elvas for their journey to the wide Sargasso sea, but caught the fatted parents for a bit of Tudor eel pie. To prove how the drama is as important as history though we agreed it was more fun making half of it up, and Bob promised to read the play Lettice and Loveage, that really thrills the crowds when the guides introduce a bit of Elizabethan flanneur, or just sheer romantic lies. Like the doubty spinsters of the piece perhaps we should all meet up again one day in London and plot to blow up Renzo Piano’s Shard in Southwark, to get back to Shakespearean basics on Bankside too. (Only joking, officer!)

The piture shows the Wikepedia image, which is NOT the original Stratford road. On Google Earth you can see that that avenue also runs beyond the Avon on the other side. Entry to Charlcote costs £10.50 for an adult, but a year’s membership will return the cost of entry

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It was telling that the actors taking their bow after the performance of David Farr’s production of Hamlet last night seemed almost embarrassed that some members of the audience were on their feet in approval, myself included. But then perhaps they were unsure of their skill, or the RSC should abandon just a little bit of its over-democratic, ensemble correctness and let individuals soak up a bit more of the glory, especially with a play that so takes it out of lead actors. Reactions in the audience, particularly over Jonathan Slinger’s troubled, sometimes screechy and certainly challenging Prince, seemed a bit confused too, but if there were certainly flaws, first to the noisy praise.

A production set somewhere between Denmark in the present and on the edge of the Second War, still with its beer Keller fencing fraternities, compensates for all the problems of Titus Andronicus (reviewed below) by giving the play and the theatre straight back to the actors, and of course the playwright. Hence, despite a visually stunning design (apart from the sofas), that suddenly strips away the boards where the fencing courtiers engage in their fatal dance of death, that can only have the two-step of two one directions, backwards or forwards, to reveal the dead earth that we all face, as hard as the set above, and where Ophelia comes to lie in black ash, there is none of the fuss that impedes the players really getting to the text. While Titus engages in a glut of cultural referencing and design chic then, this Hamlet picks one presiding metaphor only, to swell the edgy paranoia, fencing and sword fighting, entirely appropriate to a playwright who, as Peter Ackroyd points out in his biography of Shakespeare, has more staged fights than any of his contemporary dramatists. Thus the ghost, played with a Marleyesque queasiness worthy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Greg Hicks, the actor playing his usurping brother Claudius too, inches into the auditorium dressed in rusting wire mask and modern fencing kit, haloed in neon light, while everywhere swords are at hand to speed the easy and often casual blood-letting. Shakespeare’s were killing times, Ben Jonson killed a player in a duel and another man in single combat on the battlefield in Flanders, and the theatre was a battle of survival and wits too.

Wit is an especially Elizabethan word, of fighting intelligence in the world, so at first you wonder if Jonathan Slinger’s rather elderly Hamlet is not too much of the comic Woody Allen chez Elsinore, until his mind gets really nasty and struggles to find nobility again. Slinger looks a bit like Allen, and this is perhaps the first time the adolescent Prince has been given the qualities of a tragic clown, hint of white face mask to encourage the metaphysical agonies. At times Slinger minces a bit too much, just as both his and Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet were not absolutely convincing in the final sword fight. It is difficult to carry off, but that is less forgivable in a production like this, that places so much emphasis on the arts of duelling, mental and physical, because even if ‘the readiness is all’, no actor should close their eyes and wave their sword too camply, especially since Hamlet has something dangerous in him, and fencing is a precise, close quarter skill. Perhaps that is what undermined this Hamlet for some, that classical image of Hamlet’s manly nobility, and both nobility and real manhood are such a theme of the play, but Slinger compensates by delivering a performance of such inner pain, complexity and intelligence that he constantly makes you sit up and listen to the words again. A man who has just lost his father, a moment when he must either regress or grow up, and his own childhood too. As for the boyish mincing, it frees his thoughts and words and at times he is very funny indeed, while it is sustainable too, since the homoerotic elements of his passionate and playful male friendships are so underlined throughout. Indeed, rather than making Hamlet all aware, the play really starts to come alive when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear, and Hamlet’s need for friendship and trust is so challenged by his almost reluctant revealing of the lies and betrayals encircling him in the political and emotional corruption of Elsinore.

Farr and by extension Slinger have gone for the almost purely internalized then, and with an essay on depression in the programme by the comedienne Ruby Wax, Hamlet’s near mental collapse is stressed in that ‘antic disposition’, as the stage is emblazoned with the Roman motto Mens Sana In Corpora Sanis and the programme cover shows a fencing mask completely blacked out. As vital and relevant a theme and human fact as that is, and the appalling disconnection from the world it can cause, that no-one on the healthy ‘outside’ can understand, part of the problem with it being entirely true to Hamlet is that its ghost is not just a projection of Hamlet’s mind, it is seen by others, except in the bedroom scene, and tells Hamlet things of real foul deeds that spur the action. Although you can see that in context of his own ‘prophetic soul’ too, or of how a consciousness at full tilt can grasp how things can work really in the ‘world’, especially in the ‘incestuous’ play of male and female energies that make or mar us all, or perhaps itself becomes the force of corruption and ultimate despair. It is why that ghostly injuction “Taint not thy mind, Hamlet” is so important. It places Hamlet then on the very cusp of a still believing world and a new ‘psychological’ age, that perhaps we still cannot answer.

In that giving of Shakespeare back to the actors though, every one of these performances are strong and some are superb. Robin Soans is utterly convincing as a kind of ‘Yes Minister’ Polonius, a man of his class, brutal to his daughter, a skilful if dull servant of the dangerous court. Charlotte Cornwall’s Gertrude is not given enough scope, but powerful when it comes to the bedroom clinch and tender in her rediscovered or perhaps never really present maternity of her son. Both Laertes and Horatio are strong too, if the Hamlet-Horatio age gap seems too big. But the laurel for originality must go to Greg Hicks, so intentionally cast as Hamlet’s real duelling opponent. He is constantly eerie, nasty and dangerous, a man truly capable of murder, and a kind of slick Danish gangster, in shiny suit and brandishing easy lies. Hicks nearly steals the show though with his brilliant prayer scene soliloquy, I’ve never seen done so well, a man who does not delude himself, faced with the urge to heaven, but finding himself steeped in a crime he cannot expunge. It shines with intelligence and reality and so he must also advance to the poisonous staging of Hamlet’s murder. The only frustration was the lovely, febrile Pippa Nixon’s Ophelia, since her first appearance is wonderful, aching with a passionate and new discovered sexuality, so phallically underscored in the player’s dumb-show, like a character from a Milan Kundera novel. It could have led to dark wonders in her madness, but the dull white wedding dress metaphor and over strident singing in her grief loses subtlety and vulnerability and you suspect it has something to do with the staging and the desire to keep up the fencing metaphor. Yet her interment at the front throughout the last quarter is bleakly moving and also leaves you with a sense of what might have been.

At three and a half hours with a 20 minute interval there have been bloody cuts, and one of the oddest is not allowing Fortinbras on stage to deliver his valediction, but constant originality and freshness compensate, even entertaining oddity, like Claudius’ acceptance of his own execution by poison cup and so many moments where new meanings or interpretations are found in the marvelous play of words. I have no idea why the sprinklers come on in the end, except to break you out of the cloisterphobic sports hall setting, or because they had some, but it was the bracing originality, clarity and accessibility of this Hamlet that got me to my feet. It is a very unusual Hamlet, certainly not for purists, but a very palpable acting hit.

David Clement-Davies

Hamlet is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford until September 28th 2013

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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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