Published in The Times, Thursday April 16 2015
Shakespeare’s early revenge tragedy was considered theatrically beyond the pale until recently, and it’s not hard to see why. Riven with scenes of torture, rape, dismemberment, brutal murder and cannibalism, it takes a special kind of talent to prevent the bloodbath that takes place onstage from seeming gratuitously nasty or, worse, unintentionally funny.
Luckily, Philip Howard, joint artistic director of Dundee Rep, has entrusted his new adaptation to maverick theatre-maker Stewart Laing. He delivers a production that, while flawed, is carried through by the director and designer’s customary creative audacity. We know we’re in for something out of the ordinary early on when we’re guided through the main foyer of Dundee Rep and into the adjacent Bonar Hall, which has been transformed into a smart metropolitan restaurant, with tables running down either side.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
In Howard’s version, Titus (George Anton), recently returned to Rome bearing Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Emily Winter) and her sons as his prisoners, has a sideline as an uncompromising chef and restaurateur. Sharpened knives, kitchen utensils and even a wheelie bin double up as weapons of torture in the carnage that ensues.
Laing doesn’t go easy on his audience. His production is at times an uncomfortable experience to sit through, and not merely due to the graphic violence, which includes the ordeal suffered by Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Chloe-Ann Taylor) who is first raped and then has her tongue and hands cut off by Tamora’s sons, and the famous scene in which the general “plays the cook” and bakes the remains of his daughter’s tormenters in a pie. To add to our discomfort, Laing has the lights snap on and off above our heads at regular intervals while the soundtrack, specially composed by the DJ and musician JD Twitch, thumps over the speakers between scenes.
Other innovations fall a little flat. Some of the most brutal set pieces take the form of grainy, filmed footage, which rather blunts their visceral impact. Far more effective is the climactic banquet scene, in which warm olfactory pleasures fill the air while Titus serves up cold revenge.
Though the inexperience of some of the cast shows at times, on the whole the ensemble does a fine job of navigating the mix of black humour and Grand Guignol horror.
Taylor impresses as Lavinia, briefly rallying to scrawl her assailants’ names in the dirt with a piece of chalk held in her mouth. Winter is wonderfully imperious as the Goth queen, with Tunji Lucas also menacing and seductive as her scheming lover, Aaron, and Alison Peebles is superb as Marcia, Titus’s sister and a horrified final witness to the relentless cycle of revenge.
Box office: 01382 223530, to April 24. dundeerep.co.uk