There’s a reason Shakespeare’s early Roman revenge play is rarely staged: It’s a mix of the gruesome and the absurd, a nihilistic race to the bottom that encompasses rape, murder, mutilation, and cannibalism. Successful productions embrace gore and excess. This one removes the claret completely.
Directed by Jude Christian, this production features an all-female or non-binary ensemble with no obvious purpose or effect, and it’s almost decorous. Packed with conceptual gizmos, well-spoken but bloodless, it’s the kind of show a wealthy girls’ school could put on.
There’s still a nerdy delight in the moments of good poetry and echoes of future greatness found in this oddity. The character of the Moor Aaron, cynically intriguing and heroically unrepentant, is like a prototype of Othello and lago rolled into one, for example. Kibong Tanji brings it to roaring life here, in the outstanding performance of the production.
For the most part, though, Christian’s staging alternates between the nondescript and the cartoonish. Katy Stephens is the elderly General Titus, and she pronounces all the words in the correct order with the correct intonation but without any genuine feeling. As Titus’s brother, Marcus, Sophie Russell seems almost at ease, listing the violations committed against Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, as if she were reading a shopping list.
As the gothic queen Tamora, whom Titus captured in battle, Kirsten Foster is a hissing caricature of malice. Lucy McCormick’s devious Emperor Saturninus, who is marrying Tamora, strikes ridiculous poses and at one point begins delivering the verse like a lounge singer. The cast also sings upbeat modern songs at the beginning and end of each act: one of them is about a bunny.
They all wear Kim Jong-Un style robes and pants in different colors, which is boring and sometimes makes them hard to tell apart. Beau Holland delivers authentic Shakespearean comedy in a series of doomed roles, completely overshadowing and subverting the surrounding action.
Christian has also decided that in this candlelit setting, each of the play’s 14 deaths must be represented by a burning candle. Call it snuff theater. This cumbersome device becomes ridiculous when candles are cut to pieces with knives, melted with a blowtorch, chewed up with an electric drill, and pulverized with a sledgehammer.
Each newly dead character then ritually dips a circle of wicks into a vat of tallow, symbolizing that a new generation will be born and presumably sacrificed. A stage manager is busy making sure everyone has enough candles to trim. The wax-related antics push the show to a nearly three-hour run.
Some of the horror that gripped Lavinia, and the grisly reprisals Titus exacts on Tamora and her children as a result, leaks out. But one comes away with a strong impression of a director without an overall vision for this flawed play, throwing out ideas in the hope that some will stick.
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe; in rep to April 15; buy tickets here