Corn for the rich men only: with these shreds

What: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

When: October 2017

Coriolanus is, in its full form, the second longest play in Shakespeare’s canon. Performed in its entirety it would take up four hours or more of your life. Here at the RSC, it takes 2 hours and forty minutes – three hours if you include the break in the middle for ice cream.

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This Timeless Tragedy…Why Dost Thou Laugh?

What: Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 

Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

When: 4th July 2017

The RSC’s current production of “Titus Andronicus” is a bloody mess.

And that is both a good thing and a bad thing.

“Titus Andronicus” is meant to be violent and bloody and the RSC have achieved that with great aplomb.

However, “Titus Andronicus” is meant (in my view) to be macabre rather than comedic and here too much is played simply for laughs.

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A Dish Fit For… Everyone

What: Julius Caesar

Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Who: Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

When: 4th May 2017.

This reviewer is confused

The RSC decided in their wisdom to have “press day” for both Antony & Cleopatra and Julius Caesar on the same day. Figuring that seeing two plays on one day would rather ruin the palate for the second, I decided to opt out of one. On the flip of a coin and because I prefer the “Cleopatra” play normally, I decided to come back and see Julius Caesar¬†another day even though my review would appear later than everyone else’s and although it would mean seeing the plays out of sequence. Also, sequentially, it makes much more sense for Julius Caesar to be seen first.

Now I have to say that “Antony and Cleopatra” was horrible and the worst production i have seen from the RSC for a number of years.

Now since there is a director overseeing the four productions in the RSC’s Rome series, I estimated that this production would go in roughly the same direction as Iqbal Khan’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” and would need some fine performances to save it.

I needn’t have worried because Angus Jackson’s “Julius Caesar” is confusingly, truly excellent. Not flawless but truly, truly excellent and you would do well to see it.

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“a …piece of work; which … to have been blest withal would have discredited your travel.”

Who: Royal Shakespeare Company

What: Antony and Cleopatra

Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre

When: 23rd March 2017

This is the first of four reviews that I will deliver over the coming months on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Rome season. We begin with Antony and Cleopatra and then head through Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus. The comfort of this is that it gives the RSC three attempts to improve upon this woeful Antony and Cleopatra.

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Shakespeare Reviews

We now have 7 years of Shakespeare reviews on this site – so many it can be hard to find what you’re looking for. I’ve done this handy guide to them all so you can follow the links below to any RSC production over the period. Where there has been more than one production of a particular play, they are listed separately and the date given. I’ll try to keep it updated annually.

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The poor remainder of the Andronici*

*quote from Act 5 Scene 3 Line 130

When I started reading and studying Titus Andronicus I thought I would spend about a month with it – in the end I’ve been working with it for more than double that time. When I started life seemed in a reasonable, steady place. At the moment life seems as bad as it can get. Time moves on but it is now time to put the book to bed.

In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare has produced a play in which the themes and ideas are timeless. This is remarkable given that at times it has all but lost its audience. Moreover, he seems to have conceived that the themes should have a timeless applicability. I have already talked much in previous journal entries about the fact that the play shows that empires and nations rise and fall with the quality and morality of its people. They are not eternal. Consequently, the pattern of the play casts clear links between ancient Greek myth and the events which it sets in ancient Rome. However, the speakers constantly remind us that they are actors in a later day by the allusions to more contemporary events. This is Shakespeare’s way of showing that any society can fall as its people lose their way. Therefore, the players speak in the manner of people living in Reformation times even though they are ostensibly Romans watching their empire fall to the enemy they have defeated and brought within their walls.
Aaron, the villain of the piece, accuses Lucius (the coming emperor) of having a conscience which carries with it “twenty popish tricks and ceremonies” (5.1.76), a clear allusion to the vanquished Catholicism of Shakespeare’s time. At another point, a Goth explains his late arrival by saying that he “stray’d to gaze upon a ruinous monastery” (5.1.21). The “Romans and Goths” are walking in 16th century England and their fall is one that Shakespeare’s generation is also in danger of.

But what is the nature of this fall? As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the Romans have defeated the Goths at the beginning of the play but only by becoming like them. When Tamora (the Queen of the Goths) begs Titus for the life of her sons, he is deaf to her pleas. They are taken away to be sacrificed to the gods. Rome has lost its humanity and its compassion. 

But life is not simple, the Goth leaders are as bad as they seem. Rome as indeed become like them. Rule cannot simply pass to them. Tamora and her remaining children and fellows are lost in a web of concealment. She loves the evil Aaron but has married Saturninus and proclaimed love for him in order to gain influence in Rome. When her offspring, Chiron and Demetrius are schooled by Aaron (and by extension by Tamora herself) in the idea of raping and molesting Lavinia, they are taught to cover their actions by the cutting out of Lavinia’s tongue and the cutting off of her hands.
But the plotters have overstepped themselves and Tamora gives birth to a baby who is clearly not Saturninus’ but rather Aaron’s. She describes it to her Nurse as a “dismal, black and sorrowful issue” (4.2.66) and the Nurse repeats her words to her lover, Aaron. She suggests that Aaron should “christen it with thy dagger’s point” (4.2.70). There is a lack of humanity in anyone who can speak like this of anyone especially their own child and even the vile Aaron cannot co-operate.

Consequently, the playwright must find a third party to pass the throne to at the play’s conclusion. After an orgy of death in Act 5 Scene 3 (the plays least convincing scene – all the remaining issues of the play are settled just a little too quickly by too many deaths), it passes to Lucius, the surviving son of Titus, who is watched from above by “the poor remainder of the Andronici” as he takes the crown. Ominously, he is watched also by the Goth army who remain silent – perhaps watching how things develop before deciding whether to support or overthrow him.

Ironically, whether the Empire of Rome will stand depends on whether the prominent leaders can regain their humanity and their compassion. Titus’ family departed from this when they sacrificed prisoners from among the Goths foolishly believing that the gods would be pleased with them (again, there are echoes of this in our own day). The new generation must now choose whether or not to hear the plea which Tamora gave at the outset of the tragedy: “Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? Draw near them in being merciful”. (1.1.120-121).

Fool, if you think…….

One of the great trademarks of Shakespeare’s plays is the way that the fools and clowns of the various plays are the deliverers of so much wit and wisdom. From the erudite fool in King Lear via the midpoint of the humour of the Porter in MacBeth to the comic turn that is Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant of Venice, the collected works are full of them.

So you’d expect that there would be a fool in Titus Andronicus and indeed there is and we’ve not yet looked at his role. The simply-named “Clown” does not arrive on the scene until Act 4 Scene 3, line 76.1. He is asked by Titus to deliver a message to Saturninus, the Emperor. He tells us no hidden truth and aside from one strong joke which would be understood by the audience of the day, he has no particularly witty words to give us and he understands less. By scene 4 of the same Act, he delivers his message and by line 48 of that scene he is led away to his death. Don’t shoot the messenger, indeed!

If this was a late play in the Shakespearean writings, then you might think that old Will is ironically dispelling our expectations. After a career of using the fools of the theatre company to deliver insight, here is one who has nothing to say and only a brief moment upon the stage ending in his own death. But Titus Andronicus, as far as we know, is the earliest of the Shakespearean tragedies. So what are we to understand through this?

Well, perhaps, Shakespeare is pointing out that in corrupt society even truth dies. Even the hidden channels by which truth sometimes comes are closed off. In the scene that has Clown’s appearance, old Andronicus is firing arrows into the heavens (no mean feat with one good arm) with messages attached, hoping to contact the Divine who seems to have hidden his face. He then proceeds to fire them towards the Emperor’s palace in the hope of at least notifying him of his complaint. Neither tactic seems to produce much (except a bird that falls from the heavens) so Titus depends on the Clown to deliver his message for him.

The final channel for truth in this corrupt society is stopped and is hung upon the gallows. Redemption, if there is any, must come from without.