Off with their hands


It is Shakespeare's least-known and most bloody play. Bill Alexander on how he brought Titus Andronicus to the stage


Bill Alexander

Monday September 22, 2003

The Guardian


I'm back at the RSC for the first time in 12 years, to direct Titus Andronicus. The play is rarely done and is said to be difficult - which are, I suppose, the things that attract me to it. It's also wonderful that audiences don't really know the plot at all, which you can't say for Hamlet or Macbeth.That said, they do know its reputation for bloodiness - the very thing that makes the play seem so tricky to stage.

David Bradley has agreed to play Titus Andronicus. The marketing department seem pleased. When I ask about their excitement, they say:
"Haven't you seen Harry Potter?"
"Well, David plays Filch."
"No, Filch, the caretaker."
"He's an international face."
"Is it a big part, this Flitch?"
"Filch! No, well, yes, er, he makes a lot of appearances."
"But, do you think Titus Andronicus and Harry Potter have the same audience?"
I have a sudden, terrible image in my head of thousands of school children dressed as wizards and witches with broomsticks and autograph books pouring into the Stratford auditorium to see their hero and being deeply, deeply disappointed.

Titus is set in an invented ancient Rome. I'm now deep into research, and could write a small book about the difference between Republican Rome and Imperial Rome, the Roman gods, the boundaries of the empire at various dates, the number and nature of tribunes, senators, quaestors, patricians and priests, not to mention the punishments for vestal virgins if they were caught having sex, and the difference between the Temple of Jupiter and the Senate House or Curia, which the Elizabethans confused because they didn't have archaeology. But then I remember that, necessary though it is, you can become obsessed with research to the point where it becomes just a sophisticated form of pencil sharpening, a way of putting off the hard thinking that is about doing the play.

I'm carefully reading the Arden edition of Titus, which, unlike most copies of Shakespeare plays, has plenty of references to past productions. One in particular is mentioned on nearly every page: Deborah Warner's 1987 production for the RSC. I saw it myself in the Swan and it was, indeed, wonderful. It also made total sense of a play that everyone thought was undoable, largely because everyone had been told it was undoable. However, no director likes to be constantly told how brilliant another director's previous production was. Time to stop reading the Arden in case I come across more ideas I can't use because they were used by Warner.

Now totally immersed in the text of Titus, and it really is throwing up problems. It is breathtaking, vivid and thrilling, but Shakespeare was only 27 when he wrote it, right at the beginning of his writing life, and as the principal inventor of theatrical psychological realism, he still had a way to travel.
The main problem for a modern production of Titus is getting the tone right - finding a balance between the horror and dark humour of the play. Shakespeare's audience must have had a profoundly different relationship to physical violence from us. They had a judicial system that made violence acceptable and public as part of its code. People were used to seeing their fellow humans hanging from gallows, thieves with amputated hands, heads displayed on bridges, traitors disembowelled on scaffolds. They must have developed a sense of humour about it in a way we find difficult.
I've also discovered what I like about Titus: it's the best play about revenge that I can think of. Revenge is such a difficult idea to deal with. Everyone knows it's "a bad thing", yet everyone understands the phrase "revenge is sweet". Titus shows revenge's seductiveness, the impulse in us all that the law is there to control. It is a work of lurid genius because it reminds us of the fundamental truths about the role of law in a just society.

Rehearsals have begun. It's good to have people to talk with about the play when it has been battering about inside my head for so long. We are having to work hard to avoid the "bad laugh" - the audience finding the violence funny instead of shocking. In one particularly difficult scene near the end, three tit-for-tat stabbings follow in rapid succession. Getting the rhythm and the timing exactly right is crucial, and I have relied on the fight director, Malcolm Ranson, to come up with techniques that combine realism and safety. This is the kind of thing film-makers can do very easily; in front of a live audience it's much harder to make it convincing.
There's another problem: the pie served to Titus, made out of the corpses of his sons. Getting it right is tricky, but eventually we develop a pie with a rich brown pastry crust and... a filling of salmon (which has a slight resemblance to human flesh), spinach, carrots and potatoes. RSC props is going to make the recipe available for hardier members of the audience.

Another arrival from the props department - the prototype of my hand-chopping device. Basically it's a wooden bucket with a hole in the side, big enough to accommodate a hand, and a lid on the top with a slit in it. You insert a vicious-looking cleaver into the slit, then wait until the victim has placed their arm in the hole and wham the cleaver down. Assuming the victim acts well enough, this should be utterly convincing.
I start having great fun demonstrating it to anyone who is interested; everyone seems quite impressed. Then Joe Dixon, who plays Aron and is going to have to use the thing, comes in. I show him how it works.
"Couldn't I just come on and cut his hand off?" he asks.
"I mean, not really, obviously."
"No, obviously."
"It's just that it looks a bit... "
"A bit what?"
"Well... contrived."
"I mean it looks like something that's been made specially for cutting hands off."
"Yes, but it won't quite be like this. This is more of a wash tub. The real thing will be like a bucket."
"With a hole in the side?"
A week later my beautiful wooden hand-chopping bucket arrives looking just as I had imagined it and I feel painfully wistful. It's heading for my garden and a meeting with some geraniums.

We're now into previews, and learning a lot about how the play works. One person has fainted - a man - and the cast have promised to keep a count of all the faints in the run.
I think about Warner's production. She took the play seriously and showed it wasn't just a bizarre romp, a grotesque Elizabethan blood-fest purely for sensation. It's about pity and love as well as violence and revenge, and how the beauty of language can be a balm that helps protect us against barbarity. I hope my production conveys all that.

At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon until November 7. Box office: 0870 609 1110.

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