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Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was judged highly in his own day, but literary critics have since regarded this play as a distraction and an annoyance. T.S. Eliot deemed Titus to be “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written” (in fairness to Eliot, he was writing before Arthur Miller had published All My Sons), John Dover Wilson could perceive only “some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from the Elizabethan scaffold,” whilst Harold Bloom deplored the play as a “howler.” The Action to the Word production, which is currently playing to large audiences in C on Chambers Street, was my introduction to this troubled play, which is invariably attributed to a juvenile or, at best, obscurely satirical stage of Shakespeare’s development, but Action to the Word tries to make the somewhat paradoxical case that we should both lighten up and take this play more seriously.

The made-up Roman general Titus returns to the capital, having concluded a bloody war with the Goths and captured their Queen Tamora, only to find that the incoming Emperor, Saturninus, thinks that he would actually quite like to marry his royal prisoner. Perhaps the modern equivalent of this would be David Cameron entering into a civil partnership with the head of the Taliban. What Titus’ army thinks of such peace terms is never revealed, but it is mentioned that the citizens of Rome prefer Titus over Saturninus for the laurels. Yet this play is exclusively about the ruling class, an endlessly-partying little club of cutthroats who remain oblivious to the wider fortunes of their civilisation. The elite’s manifold contempt for ordinary people is revealed when a shabby clown arrives with a message. They pull disgusted faces and then have him hanged.

Tamora, a devil in petticoats who is attended by her two demented sons and a wily Moor named Aaron, unleashes an elaborate revenge upon Titus, whose children are expended like battalions in this escalating private war. When Titus sustains a temporary defeat, and he ends up raging over a stage which is littered with his own and his family’s body parts, his humiliation is portrayed with an unexpected subtlety and tenderness. Tamora’s ascent from being a despised alien to having Rome under her thumb almost imagines feasible a world in which Shylock, Iago or Caliban could triumph. Perhaps if Shakespeare had told her story later in his career, she could have been a great tragic heroine. Aaron’s devotion to his bastard son allows us to find something splendid and redemptive in this play, which is ultimately lacking in the character of Titus. Shakespeare’ genius is detectable rattling about in here somewhere, and in Action to the Word’s production, the evidence points increasingly to the power and mystery of the later, grander tragedies.

But with tongues cut out and hands hacked off, it proved ever more difficult for this play to screw its tragedy to the sticking place, and it finally settles instead for a rowdy but slick burlesque. Tom Christian’s versatile Titus comfortably accommodates both the grizzled patriarch and the hooting psychopath, but he increasingly capitulates to a fondness for clowning about with the play’s severed hand. Martin McCreadie and Stevie Raine are at times in danger of reducing Tamora’s sons to pantomime Ugly Sisters, but they remain as cold and as beautiful as snakes in these roles. Adrian DeCosta Carnegie is a hive of subtlety as Aaron and his magnetism points most clearly towards the later Shakespeare.

This was a fine cast, and so I suppose that we have to ultimately blame any defects upon the writer. We end with a great hiccup – Tamora snorts a mouthful of her sons’ flesh across the stage and into the audience, before flying face first into her pie. Although there was more than a little symbolism to the hanging of that clown, perhaps he ended up enjoying the last laugh.

[There’s a good review of the play here. Tychy previously posted a stupid cartoon about Titus. Ed.]