Titus Andronicus is a rather unique experience, and for the unsuspecting audience can be quite the shock. Near the interval a person behind us whispered an expletive in response to proceedings on stage, with the violence escalating throughout the rest of the evening. The play often feels like one designed to beat an audience into submission; a violent orgy of death and revenge that is a positively brutal viewing experience; no matter the quality of the production around it. And this is a very good version indeed.
Titus Andronicus essentially boils down to a clash of two families, with Tamara vowing revenge on Titus for the sacrifice of her eldest son, that breeds revenge from Titus towards her. Across the next three hours, violent act begets violent act, each deed escalating to the next.
This take on the play is given a modern setting, aligning strikingly with our troubled time, particularly during the pomp and ceremony of the first half. An effective design from Robert Innes Hopkins brings a rewardingly visceral experience; with an outstanding set dominated by the Roman senate at the back of the stage. The cast are uniformly good, committing to proceedings gallantly. There are fabulous turns at every level of role in the show, including Paul Dodds' scene-stealing Returning Officer, Stefan Adegbola's deliciously vile Aaron, a harrowingly sympathetic turn from Hannah Morrish as the much wronged Lavinia and the odiously modern Saturninus as played by Martin Hutson.
The ensemble does not have a single weak link but it would be all or nought if it weren't for the triumphant central performance. As Titus, David Troughton is magnetic. In recent years the interpretation of Titus has moved towards treating him as a proto-Lear and while there is much of this in Troughton's performance, particularly in the physical tics that show the character's age, there are also some of the more mischievous elements. There is a fun moment of audience interaction early on in the second half that shows what a skilled performer he is, and he seems to find throughout proceedings a way to play the part that cuts through.
Director Blanche McIntyre has been a fascinating talent to watch progress, from her early fringe triumphs through to progressively more ambitious productions. Here she brings her usually clarity to proceedings; marshalling an unforgiving play into something closely resembling a more powerful tragedy than Titus really has any right to be. The play is a product of its time, an early work of Shakespeare closely hewing to the trends of his period (a violent death every few scenes; a plotline that borders on soap opera) but under McIntyre's guiding hand it threatens to morph into something more.
Not every Shakespeare play is a classic. But that does not mean that the productions of the less notable works cannot find a brilliance in a committed cast, a fantastic lead, and very good direction and design. This is the case with this production of Titus, a first-rate production wrapped round a lesser piece of work.