If you don't know anything about Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and you are a bit squeamish then probably best give this a miss. The preview performance I saw last Friday had to be halted as someone was taken ill; at that point Lavinia (Hannah Morrish) was wandering the stage covered in blood from a particular brutal and barbaric attack. This is a gory revenge play with 15 or so deaths of escalating brutality and the RSC doesn't shy away from it.
The play starts off with gangs in hoodies and the police facing off in a sequence that is choreographed like a dance. Titus is essentially a play about different factions at war over who should be Emporer, who should be married to whom and where loyalties lie. When the play proper starts, general Titus Andronicus (David Andronicus) does two things that unwittingly spark the spiralling mayhem. One decision you can back him on, one is distinctly more debatable.
Once the opening hoodie gangs sequence is over the play settles into the style of modern military and politics rather than street gangs which is a bit of a shame. I've seen Titus performed as gangs before and it works but here it feels like a device to add energy to the opening segment of the play which is pretty much the set up for the carnage.
There are still some notes that echo the opening. The sons of Tamora Queen of the Goths (Nia Gwynne) are like laddish thugs who can't believe their luck when their mother marries the Emporer. They enjoy royal life sunbathing by the palace pool and later wear loud designer shirts suggesting they've got the money but not the taste.
The irony of the production is that as the method of killing gets more inventive the more amusing the play becomes. Titus, who seems to be losing his mind, hides out in a Smeg fridge box with holes cut in it and a baby gets passed back and forth between the stage and the audience. It feels like a different play to the politics and plotting of the first half.
For me Titus Andronicus has to be a bloody play and the RSC doesn't stint on the stage blood or other theatrical trickery in order to portray the various murders and mutilations. We were sat on the front row and very nearly got blood splats at one point.
It has its harrowing moments and if you are unfamiliar with the story then no doubt there will be some surprises. David Troughton was a Learish Titus and Hannah Morrish conveyed an awful lot without speaking for a chunk of the play. It's fairly simply staged although I'm not entirely sure what the gated segment of the back really signified.
Not my favourite production of Titus Andronicus but there was enough in it to entertain and absorb. I'm giving it four stars, mainly for the blood and gore. It's approximately three hours and 5 minutes including an interval and is in rep at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon until September 2. It transfers to the Barbican Theatre in London in December, details on both the RSC and Barbican websites.