Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s tragedy of blood-thirsty and violent revenge, was extremely popular in his own life-time, but subsequently, fell out of favour with audiences who did not want to watch such horrors at the theatre. According to an entry in “Henslowe’s Diary”, the play was first performed at the Rose Theatre by Sussex’s men on 24th January 1594, and was entered in the Stationers’ Register on 6th February of the same year. Unusually for Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus has no direct identifiable sources and it is believed that Shakespeare was influenced by Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, an adaptation of Senecan revenge tragedy believed to have been written between 1582 and 1592. Following the Restoration in 1660 and the reopening of theatres, a number of adaptations of Shakespeare’s play were staged, including Titus Andronicus, or The Rape of Lavinia, written by Edward Ravenscroft around 1678. Peter Brook’s 1955 production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, starring Laurence Olivier as Titus, and his wife, Vivien Leigh as Lavinia, was the first time the play had been staged at Stratford-upon-Avon, and was responsible for re-establishing the play in modern Shakespeare repertory. Brook cut the text and used stylised images to reproduce the blood and gore, such as the use of flowing scarlet ribbons, a device copied by the Japanese director, Yukio Ninagawa, in his 2006 production, staged as part of the RSC’s Complete Works festival.
Since 1955 seven productions of Titus Andronicus have been performed on the RSC stage, including the current production which opened at the Swan on 23rd May. Directed by Michael Fentiman, this latest version stars Stephen Boxer as Titus Andronicus, the highly honoured Roman general and Katy Stephens as Tamora, Queen of the Goths. In 1987, Deborah Warner, the first woman to direct at the recently opened Swan Theatre, offered the first uncut version of Shakespeare’s play in a theatre whose structure was designed to offer a similar relationship between actor and audience as in the Elizabethan playhouse.
Using the bare wood stage of the Swan and few props, Deborah Warner was less interested in establishing Rome than using the intimacy of the space to explore the bonds between family and imperial domination. Reviewing the play in The Guardian (15th May 1987), Michael Billington praised Brian Cox’s portrayal of Titus: “...you feel you are in the presence of a working warrior, flinty, aged, and tough. But, most importantly, you also sense he is a concerned father...”. Of the production itself he wrote, “Ms Warner’s Titus emphatically works because...she renders the play with burning conviction of its worth and discovers the humane values under the mountainous horrors.” Values which are captured in Joe Cocks’ photograph of Titus and Lavinia, played by Sonia Ritter, following her rape and mutilation.