Sunday, 28 July 2013

There’s No Need For Guns,

Shakespeare manages to kill off almost the entire cast of  Titus Andronicus without a single shot being fired.

In this play we have it all: war, murder, dismemberment, rape, stabbing, back stabbing, deceit, mutilation, conspiracy, feigned madness and cannibalism and, above all, bloody revenge. Tarantino couldn’t have done worse. Whereas I wouldn’t dream of going to a film where violence is the main ingredient, Shakespeare is different. There’s the beauty of the language, of course, and then, somehow, the violence makes sense. There’s a harsh but elegant symmetry to the action, in spite of the relentless slaughter. My sons are killed, I will sacrifice your eldest to appease the gods. Your sons have violated and dismembered my daughter, yours will suffer death at her and my hands. Well, stumps in her case, because it was her hands that the rapists chopped off.

Production Photo
Stephen Boxer as Titus and Rose Reynolds as Lavinia

“The play is set simultaneously in timeless myth, imperial Rome and Shakespeare’s own Europe. It should be read as a compendium of two thousand years of warfare and violence.”  (programme notes)

“Ever since the time of ancient Greek tragedy, western culture has been haunted by the figure of the revenger. He or she stands on a whole series of borderlines between civilisation and barbarity.” (programme notes)

There were moments of horror so great that I gasped with shock; in a film I would have hidden my face in my arms, yet I never once looked away during the play. Not when Alarbus was executed, or when Lavinia was raped and mutilated; when Titus allowed Aaron to cut off one of his hands in return for the  lives of his sons, only to find that they had already been murdered. Or when Lavinia helped her father  butcher Tamora’s sons. 

And yet there were moments of grim humour too, when an unforced laugh burst out of me and everyone else in the audience, proof that we were all wholly engrossed in and captivated by the performance.

Production Photo
Katy Stephens as Tamora with members of the cast

Several times I wanted to shout out loud: when Marcus, the Tribune, comes upon his niece Lavinia after Chiron and Demetrius have finished with her and instead of comforting her or at least falling into a stunned silence, he delivers a long, dissonant, stomach-churning speech.  Or when the lifeless bodies of Alarbus, Chiron and Demetrius are hauled up to the ceiling high above the stage very slowly, hanging upside down by their feet. In the first instance I could only just manage to stop myself from advising Markus to shut up and get an ambulance and, in the latter, I wanted to urge the stagehands to get a move on and get the actors up before they died from too much blood on the brain.

All four of us came out of the theatre speechless to begin with. And then, with one accord, we exhaled deeply and fell into raptures over the performance. None of us had seen the play performed before. Beloved, who is usually rather subdued in his praise, said “That’s what I call a play!"

Synopsis of Titus Andronicus

Believed to be Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy Titus Andronicus is famed for its scene of cannibalism, when a mother unwittingly eats her own children, baked into a pie.

Titus, Rome’s most honoured general, returns from a brutal 10 year war  against the Goths with their queen, Tamora, her sons and her lover, Aaron the Moor, as captives. Her eldest son is sacrificed by Titus in revenge for his own sons, lost during the war. Tamora vows revenge.

The brothers Saturninus  and Bassianus are in contention for the Roman emperorship.

On his return, Titus is nominated emperor by his brother Marcus, one of Rome’s tribunes. Titus declines, instead nominating Saturninus. To seal the bond of friendship, the new emperor, Saturninus, offers to marry Titus’s daughter, Lavinia. But she is already secretly pledged to marry Bassianus, Saturninus’ rival for the crown of Rome. Saturninus, by now infatuated with Tamora, the queen of the Goths, makes her his empress instead.

Manipulated by Aaron, Tamora's sons, Chiron and Demetrius, avenge their mother by raping and mutilating Lavinia, and killing Bassianus. Aaron falsely implicates two of Titus's sons in this murder.

In his turn Titus vows revenge and sends his one surviving son Lucius to the Goths to raise an army against Saturninus. With the help of  Lavinia, he achieves his revenge against Tamora by killing her sons. Titus invites Saturninus  and his court to a banquet.  After having strangled his defiled and mutilated daughter Lavinia in an act of mercy, he serves the remains of her sons to Tamora and kills her too.

Ttitus himself is killed by Saturninus and his death is avenged by the returning Lucius, who is made emperor.


  1. Not one that usually features on school syllabuses!

  2. It sounds rather like some family Christmas celebrations I've witnessed ...

  3. Lord, human beings do like bloodthirsty entertainment, don't they. Some things don't change, I fear.

  4. Friko, I left a longer comment, but Word Press erased it. Suffice it to say, I hate this play, along with Sweeney Todd, plays by Brecht, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Too much violence for me. But I do support the right to bear arms (within reason). Dianne

  5. Wow. Sounds like a powerful piece of work by the players.


  6. I have never seen this play. Wow! Talk about shocking murderous plots afoot! I can see why you were speechless at times.

  7. Thanks for this... you had me rivetted to my chair as I imagined you all engrossed in the play. Shakespeare, perfomed well, is timeless. Christine

  8. I LOVE Shakespeare and I would really love to see this play!

  9. I always listen attentively to those who are usually subdued in their comments. Controlled fire types. Unforced laughter, the only way to go.

  10. Hi Friko .. if I lived nearer Stratford I'd be up like a shot - but I suspect it'll be booked out .. what a great rendition .. and I loved your telling of it .. and wonderful to hear Beloved's acclimation ..

    Enjoy your memories watching that beautiful garden sway in the summer of August ..

    Cheers Hilary

  11. Shakespeare’s theme is timeless. This story may feel not existing around you as well as me but surely exists on this earth. I wouldn’t like to see violent films but you made me feel like seeing this play by the same actors.


  12. Only Shakespeare could bring this off, don't you think? In violent movies, the harsh is certainly there, and a surfeit of gore, but entirely missing is that "elegant symmetry to the action," let alone the beautiful language. I'm so happy I've finally had a chance to read your thrilling, chilling report of Titus A., and on top of that to see your beautiful photographs to accompany messing about on the river. Over here, we've just discovered that King Lear is on at the beautiful grounds of Boscobel overlooking the Hudson River, about an hour away from us. We've never been. We've been a little skeptical about the quality of "local" productions, but this has been very well reviewed, so we will go on Tuesday. Next year, they start the history plays, so if all goes well, I suspect we'll be making some return visits.

  13. Ah! Perhaps you saw Titus Andronicus at the Swan! You are right about Shakespeare being able to kill off the minions without a gun. More civilized,I think. I always found that an intriguing play but I've never seen a production of it.

    Isn't it wonderful when a play can so totally immerse you in its content. I love that you (and everyone) laughed and Beloved's pronouncement says it all. Oh, what a fabulous experience!

  14. Why is it that Shakespeare can get us to watch stuff like this, when we wouldn't watch it on film? Like you I don't like violent films, yet have been riveted at stage productions of , Macbeth Julius Caesar and King Lear, though I haven't yet seen Titus Andronicus. Forewarned is forearmed.....


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