In more or less the same year that Thomas Middleton wrote A Mad World My Masters – currently in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford – it is held by many that he co-wrote with the Bard himself Timon of Athens. In that play, the cynical philosopher Apemantus, who opens Timon’s eyes to the emptiness of the fickle friends upon whom he wastes his fortune, berates ladies who dance as if “madness is the glory of this life”. Two other plays currently being staged at Stratford seem rather to take the side of the ladies over the philosopher.
In some ways, Hamlet and Titus Andronicus could not be two plays more different: the first, written at the height of Shakespeare’s powers and composed almost entirely of lines so perfectly formed that they have each become their own aphorism; the second, traditionally dismissed as distasteful juvenilia with a prurient interest in sex and violence and too little emphasis on pleasing verse. On the other hand, both feature a protagonist who plays with expectations of madness, a king more selfish than sovereign, and a young woman heinously wronged. There are over-many echoes between the two plays, which also share an opening over-shadowed by the death of a king and a finale littered with bodies, entirely to deny, as some Victorian critics tried, that Shakespeare was at least in part responsible for both.
Titus, however, is probably, like Timon, a collaboration: a variety of textual analyses over the years have arrived at not just a similar proportion of the text being likely the work of George Peele, but precisely the same tracts of text: the entirety of the play’s first Act, for instance, appears not to be properly Shakespearean. In many ways, though, it is this act which sets the tone: the language, though replete with Classical allusions, is relatively demotic and unadorned; events move quickly, and often with minimal psychological set-up; and those events, without exception, are shockingly violent and thoroughly depraved. Within the first Act alone, Titus sacrifices to the gods the son of the defeated Queen of the Goths, Tamora, allowing his own sons to lop off the prisoner’s limbs; the emperor, Saturninus, instantly drops Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, whom he had only selected as his wife a scant few lines previously, in order to avail himself of Tamora’s more pleasing “hue”; Titus kills one of his sons when he and his siblings refuse to brook the emperor’s insult, whisking her away with Bassianus, the new tyrant’s brother; and, finally, Tamora pretends to save the Androcini from the emperor’s vengeance only, of course, to swear a bloodier kind upon them in an aside. All clear?
The rest of the play follows through this Mobius strip of revenge: Rome upon the Goths, Tamora upon Titus, Saturninus upon Bassianus. Each act of vengeance naturally escalates and amplifies the next, until the play closes with the stage covered in corpses, and Tamora’s sons baked in a pie she is forced to eat. How different, one might ask, is this to Hamlet, which ends likewise in a bloodbath few survive, an invading army entering stage right, the hero thwarted and revenge Pyrrhic? The answer, of course, is in the quality of the verse which explores both the motivations of the revengers and the depths of pain which proceed from their actions. In Titus, each of the characters enacts one form or another of vengeance, but all of their baser motives are given voice in the figure of Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish lover and bagman, whose “soul [is] black like his face”:
O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.
This is thin stuff compared to a single couplet of Hamlet (“The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
/ Be all my sins rememb’red.”), and compared with the psychological knots into which each of that later play’s characters are tied, the reactions of Titus and his entourage to the collapse of their Rome feels schematic and robotic. Likewise, the gory spectacle of Titus’s daughter – raped and with tongue torn out and hands amputated, stumbling through a forest – is, however arresting and awful, also rather crude and excessive compared to Gertrude’s report of an Ophelia wrapped in sodden flowers. The audience at the RSC’s summer season might, then, know what to expect: a Hamlet luminous and lucid, a Titus vexing and vapid.
Certainly, in Jonathan Slinger the RSC has a Hamlet capable of doing great justice to that eloquent verse. In the role, Slinger eschews the charisma of the star turn, or the declamations of a celebrity casting, in favour of an often quite beautiful delivery embedded in an extremely strong ensemble. He allows himself frequently to be outshone: by Robin Soans’s preening Polonius, Greg Hicks’s simply marvellous Ghost, or Pippa Nixon’s quirky, affecting Ophelia. He skips onto stage for ‘To be or not to be’ singing a Ken Dodd song; he exhorts the Player King (a masterful Cliff Burnett) with all the eloquence and naturalness that speech demands; and, crucially, he engages the audience without courting them.
And yet, and yet. Slinger’s performance is bedevilled by the production’s own difficulties. The play’s director, David Farr, has apparently been begging to tackle Hamlet for years. It shows: he is caught trying to squeeze onto stage every idea he has had for the play in all that time spent lobbying. Claudius is Tony Blair writ large, and yet he presides over his court in a dog-eared public school gymnasium; dancers and the Ghost alike cross the stage wearing fencing masks, but Hamlet appears to us as a disappointed bureaucrat, all ill-fitting suits and goggle-box glasses. The arrival of Fortinbras’s troops, festooned in fatigues, at the close of the play fits the benches and épées no more than Slinger’s Tennant-like welcoming of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fits his deeper connections with Ophelia and Horatio, or the chill chemistry he has with Gertrude. It is a production, and a performance, of many facets – but little coherence.
In part, this is understandable: Hamlet revels in irresolution and partiality. But compare Farr’s Hamlet with the Titus Andronicus with which Michael Fentiman is making his RSC debut, and one sees the power of conceptual follow-through. Fentiman has a cast that fits his own youth: though Stephen Boxer as Titus, Richard Durden as Marcus and Katy Stephens and Tamora all put real meat on the bones of their lines, each developing their own specific kind of authority and magnetism, the ensemble as a whole feels less dextrous than Farr’s. Kevin Harvey as Aaron, for instance, exhibits real charisma – but also swallows some of his lines in a haste to make them meaningful. Many of the cast are young and demonstrative; some play one element of their character well and others with less conviction (John Hopkins, for instance, is super when Saturninus is vain, less so when he is commanding).
Fentiman conceives of Titus as a Tarantino schlockathon – in the final scene, for instance, Titus arrives on stage with the pies dressed in the uniform of a maid, and the ‘tumult’ indicated in the stage directions turns into a Python-esque orgy of Itchy-and-Scratchy violence. This last development tips scales the play has otherwise held in a tense balance, allowing for a serious examination of the consequences of violence, whilst also permitting what is to modern audiences the necessary wry self-knowledge that the play’s events are almost explicitly theatrical. In a world in which soldiers eat human hearts on YouTube, and bloody machetes appear on the front page of the Guardian, the violence of Titus might not, in fact, seem so unlikely; but, nevertheless, Fentiman’s vision of the play holds true, and it carries through verse and players from first to final scene with a gripping clarity. Between the gasps and the guffaws Fentiman’s spin drags from its audience, no one hears the creaks.
For make no mistake: Titus is a poor play. Not only is the diction repetitive, and the characters, barring hard work on the parts of the players, thin; there are clanging notes of dischord (Marcus’s poetry at the sight of his neice’s ravishment, or Lucius’s final, hopeful speech); in Aaron, there is little of the subversion of villainous types to be found in Shylock or even Caliban; and in Tamora and Lavinia, we have women who are punished and spurned quite out of proportion with their crimes in light of those committed by the men around them. But in performance these are plays not texts – and momentum is all.
Both Hamlet and Titus toy not just with the expectations held by those orbiting their eponymous anti-heroes, of course, but also those of their audiences. This places a real burden on the director and the cast to provide at least some of the architecture that is not only missing from the text simply as a consequence of its period and manner of construction; but also as a result of Shakespeare’s wilful ambiguity, the mutability he builds into his verse as a means of asserting his own skill (Titus is surely itself a game of unseemly one-upmanship with Kit Marlowe and Thomas Kyd). Too much of this signposting and the production will be static; too little and it will be formless. Neither Farr nor Fentiman wind up at either disastrous extreme of this spectrum. But somehow, despite its being the poorer play in every way, it is Titus Andronicus which has the clearer sense of direction – and, without any right to do so, feels more fulfilling.