JOYCE MCMILLAN on TITUS ANDRONICUS at Dundee Rep, for The Scotsman, 13.4.15. _____________________________________________________
4 stars ****
AS WE ENTER, we see that the Bonar Hall at Dundee Rep has been transformed. It’s become a restaurant called Rome, one of those huge, frightening state-of-the-art eating-places where the diners sit ranged at long tables down either side, while in the middle, on gleaming stainless-steel benches, the chefs chop, slice, and sizzle, in full view of their customers-turned-audience.
More, it’s a restaurant that goes for a touch of retro Soviet chic; the near wall, by the door, offers a ten-metre shrine of idealised, colour-tinted images of Soviet heroes, butchers and tyrants. And if, for much of the play, this restaurant setting remains only a backdrop to Shakespeare’s notoriously violent early tragedy – a ready source of knives, water, and other instruments of torture – the imagery of boiling and butchery returns with a vengeance at the play’s end, vindicating all the radical choices made by acclaimed Scottish director Stewart Laing, who stages and designs this production in an adaptation by Rep director Philip Howard.
It’s true that Laing’s vision may frustrate those who are more interested in Shakespeare’s language than in his drama. In this intense, fiercely physical production – featuring a mainly youthful cast of twelve – the narrative is always clear, as the Roman general Titus returns from the wars, only to find his daughter Lavinia and all his family savagely assaulted by the new young Emperor, and his alluring Visigoth empress Tamora.
Yet the intensity of the kitchen soundscape – all sizzling banks of lights, thumping beats and howling smoke-alarms – often overwhelms the detail of the text; and it’s striking, in this acoustic, that the voices of the three strong women in the cast – Emily Winter, Chloe-Ann Taylor and Alison Peebles – often ring out much more clearly than those of the men, led by a slightly subdued George Anton as Titus.
In the end, though, what Laing achieves with this production is an extraordinary effort of imagination, as he enters deep into Shakespeare’s nightmare vision of an ever-more-brutal cycle of violence and revenge, and then – through the play’s horrific final banquet scene – forces a serious contemplation of the implicit violence of our own civilisation, and of the renewed cults of revenge that stalk our world. And if gasps of shock ran round the Scottish theatre scene last autumn when Stewart Laing’s company failed to win regular funding, this is a show that helps to explain why; a breathtaking 21st century take on one of the most difficult plays in the whole Shakespeare canon, and a reflection on violence that finally – through the very food we eat – implicates us all.
Dundee Rep until 25 April.