a bloodless take on Shakespeare’s revenge horror

Katy Stephens and Kibong Tanji in Titus Andronicus (Camilla Greenwell)

Katy Stephens and Kibong Tanji in Titus Andronicus (Camilla Greenwell)

There’s a reason Shakespeare’s early Roman revenge play is rarely played: it’s a mix of the gruesome and absurd, a nihilistic race to the bottom that embraces rape, murder, mutilation and cannibalism. Successful productions embrace the blood and excess. This completely removes the bordeaux.

Directed by Jude Christian, this production features an all-female or non-binary ensemble with no apparent purpose or effect, and is close to decent. Crammed with conceptual gimmicks, eloquent but bloodless, it’s the kind of show a well-to-do girls’ school could put on.

There’s still a nerdy pleasure to be had in the moments of beautiful poetry and echoes of future greatness found in this rarity. The character of the cynically conspiratorial, heroically unrepentant Moor Aaron is like a prototype of, say, Othello and Iago rolled into one. He gets roaring life from Kibong Tanji here, in the standout performance of the production.

But Christian’s staging usually alternates between boring and cartoonish. Katy Stephens is the aging General Titus, and she speaks all the words in the right order with the right intonation but without any sense of sincerity. As Titus’ brother, Marcus, Sophie Russell appears almost numb, listing Titus’ daughter Lavinia’s violations as if she were reading a grocery list.

From left Mei Mei MacLeod, Kirsten Foster and Mia Selway (Camilla Greenwell)

From left Mei Mei MacLeod, Kirsten Foster and Mia Selway (Camilla Greenwell)

As the Goth queen Tamora, who captured Titus in battle, Kirsten Foster is a hissing caricature of malice. Lucy McCormick’s scheming Emperor Saturninus, who marries Tamora, strikes ridiculous poses and at one point begins to pronounce the verse like a lounge singer. The cast also sings cheerful modern songs at the beginning and end of each act: one of them is about a rabbit.

They all wear Kim Jong-Un style tunics and pants in different colors, which is boring and sometimes hard to distinguish. Beau Holland offers an authentic Shakespearean comedy in a series of doomed roles, which completely misleads and undermines the surrounding action.

Christian has also decided that in this candlelit room each of the play’s 14 deaths should be represented by a cone being extinguished. Call it snuff theatre. This cumbersome device becomes laughable when candles are chopped up with knives, melted with a blowtorch, chewed through a drill and pulverized with a hammer.

Each new dead character then ritually dips a circle of wicks into a vat of tallow, symbolizing that a new generation will be born and presumably slaughtered. A stage manager is busy making sure everyone has enough candles to slaughter. The wax-related shenanigans push the show to a running time of nearly three hours.

Some of the horror that Lavinia has visited, and the gruesome reprisals Titus exacts from Tamora and her sons as a result, sinks in. But you get a strong impression of a director with no overarching vision for this flawed play, throwing ideas at it hoping some will stick.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe; in rep until April 15; buy tickets here

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