When the famous general Titus Andronicus returns triumphant from his victory against the Goths, a far more intimate but no less bloody battle awaits him at home. The back-and-forth revenge plots of his violently dysfunctional extended family bludgeon a path through execution, murder, rape, mutilation and madness, to arrive at the iconic finale with the queen eating her sons in a pie, the father slaying his dishonoured daughter, and pitifully few of the cast left standing to recite an epilogue. It didn’t entirely go with the green and sunny corner of University Parks in which it was played, but it is to the production’s credit that this did not matter a bit.
The setting of the play imagined a Britain that Rome had never left, so the actors bore laurel wreaths on costumes that reminded me of the Regency period, fought with wooden poles that served as both guns and swords, and conducted the occasional scene over afternoon tea. It was rather timeless and a bit bizarre, but had the effect of underlining the overall weirdness of Shakespeare’s text in a very pleasing way. The scene in which Titus and his cohorts spend a good five minutes squabbling over who gets to chop off their hand to send as a ransom for Titus’ sons (“My hand shall go!” - “By heaven, it shall not go!”, “I’ll go fetch an axe” – “But I shall use the axe!”) was one of the highlights for me.
It being University Parks on a warm evening the cast had to hold their own against an audio backdrop of guitar and football, but there were some strong performances successfully driving the action forward. Jo Murray as the revenge hungry queen Tamora deserves a special mention for her lightning quick leaps between seduction and savagery, as do Dionne Farrell and Ruth Munglani for lending weightiness to the two opposing generals, Titus and Saturninus. I also liked the sincerity of Kate MacArthur in her role as Titus’ brother Marcus, too often having to comment on increasingly tragic turns of events while those around her grieve, and still managing to be more dramatic than morose.
The play had a certain informality to it and was not without flaws - isolated moments may have tended towards the histrionic and there were a few misspoken and garbled lines. However for me the production’s momentum far outweighed its rough edges and I would thoroughly recommend it. Unremitting violence and evil intent aside, Titus Andronicus seems to me a strange mix of high tragedy and black humour, and in this production I felt I could enjoy both.