It was only half way into Ben Henson’s gripping all-male version of Titus that I remembered that I had seen the play before, a traditional version in the other replica globe theatre in London. I had fainted. This stylised version is no less shocking, but it is shorter. By doing some clever cutting which has prioritised plot, pace and clarity, seven actors carry the core roles and anything unnecessary has gone. It works, the action cracks on and it is not confusing, despite the odd doubling-up. I rate a Shakespeare show on whether it is necessary to read a synopsis first. In this version, you don’t.
Paul Lewis plays the proud and unmerciful Roman General, Titus, who sacrifices a young prince (a teddy bear) in front of his mother, the defeated Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Cole Jenkins). When she ousts Titus’s daughter Lavinia (a bashful Eli Matthewson) in Emperor Saturninus’s affections, Tamora is empowered to begin her campaign of revenge. Pretty well everyone is dead within two hours (including interval).
Is it more or less shocking to see a man rather than a woman play Lavinia, a girl raped and mutilated? I would say less so, BUT, it somehow allowed Jason Wu and David Sutherland, as Chiron and Demetrius respectively, to pull no punches at all in their attack on her/him. In London I was completely convinced by the victim but not the attackers, in this one it was the other way round. Titus has gone up and down in people’s estimations over the centuries – the characters are unlikeable, even Lavinia subscribes to the Old Testament’s demand for an eye for an eye, and while there is a good deal of grief, there is little internal conflict until the very last moments. But what the performances lack in subtlety is more than made up for in energy and creative theatricality from costume changes to dead dolls. When you get a cast, as this one does, engaging 100% in a fight for dominance, it engages something primal within you that does not allow you to pull your eyes away. This is especially so when the cast, returning to the production after a few years digestion, know and inhabit their roles so well that they can play with space and the audience with gleeful relish. Henson and his cast put on an exhilarating performance.
Titus by William Shakespeare, directed by Ben Henson
At the Pop-Up Globe until 20 March