David Bradley plays the title role in the current production of Titus Andronicus.
Titus has given his whole life to the empire and the idea of Rome and he has lost 22 sons in battle. He takes great pride in the fact that his sons have died with honour, for Rome. It's a glorious way to die - the way he'd choose for himself. But he also knows that the gods must be displeased or they wouldn't have killed so many Andronici. Then his eldest son, Lucius, reminds him of an archaic belief that the only way for the dead to pass over to the other side, to cross the River Styx and find peace in death is through the sacrifice of a prisoner. Titus sacrifices Alarbus, the eldest son of his defeated enemy Tamora, Queen of the Goths, because it's the most honourable thing to do. But this act sets off the cycle of tragic events.
Honour and duty are Titus's watchwords at the start of the play but very quickly he changes his mind, and the watchword becomes revenge. He chose Saturninus for Emperor however unsuitable Saturninus may be, because he was the eldest son of the late emperor. He believes that once Saturninus is endowed with the Emperor's crown he will justify the choice and perform his duty. He is also astute enough to realise that if he chooses the Emperor's second son, Bassianus, such a break in tradition might lead to civil war. But Titus backs the wrong horse - he's blinkered and a firm traditionalist, the way some military people can be. One of his downfalls is his political naivety. The fog soon lifts from his eyes and he realises that Rome is a wilderness of tigers.
I believe Titus has been respected and loved by his men over the years, otherwise he wouldn't have had such great military success. We've been reading Tacitus' Annals of Ancient Rome which I suspect influenced Shakespeare when writing Titus - particularly the story of Germanicus, a well-respected general who fought against the Goths. He was an honourable man who had to do ruthless things, like punish his own soldiers as well as the enemy, despite which you feel he was respected by his men. Life was brutal: In a 10-year period, Titus marched over the Alps 5 times. At the start of the play, he is covered in glory but within 20 minutes, he is on his knees, begging for his sons' lives. I don't think Titus is a monster - he feels he has to sacrifice Tamora's eldest son, because it is the only way his sons' souls can find peace. It's what happens to Titus that makes him monstrous.
We've cut the death of Mutius. The director, Bill Alexander, quite rightly suggested early on that the death of Mutius is probably part of the first act that is written by another playwright - most probably George Peele. We felt that the death of Mutius not only added too many minutes to Act 1 scene 1 but also somehow dehumanised Titus as a character. If you leave it in, Titus kills his son and about 10 minutes later he saying to the Emperor, "I can't tell you how happy I am about the way things have turned out. Will you come hunting with me my Lord?" I'm sure the audience would think "What kind of a prat is that? How are we supposed to follow his story and go with him?"
We also felt that the sacrifice of Alarbus and Tamora's desire for revenge was getting lost by including the death of Mutius and the long discussion about where to bury him. In cutting it, we give the revenge story much greater clarity and pace.
I was aware of the stage history of of Titus at the RSC: Laurence Olivier, Colin Blakely, Patrick Stewart and Brian Cox. They all look as though their heads would fit nicely on a Roman coin. Titus has travelled over the Alps 5 times in the last 10 years and I just knew he wouldn't travel in a carriage whilst his men marched, he'd march with them. So at the start of the play he's absolutely knackered. When Titus is offered the crown, he says: "A better head her glorious body fits / Than his that shakes in age and feebleness" [1.1.190-1]. As he offers up his hand to Aron to chop off, he says: "Such withered herbs as these / Are meet for plucking up "[3.1.178]. And in Act 4 scene 3 he says to Marcus "we are but shrubs, no cedars we, / No big-boned men framed of the Cyclops' size, / But metal, Marcus, steel to the very back" [lines 46-8].
There is a key line when Marcus brings in Lavinia sans hands, tongue and virginity: "Prepare thy aged eyes to weep / I bring consuming sorrow to thine age" and Titus replies: "Will it consume me? Let me see it then." [3.1.59-62]. There is only so much one can take. At that point, when two of his surviving sons have been executed, he has been cast out, his whole family dishonoured and his daughter mutilated, I think madness appeals to him as a refuge, a way of escaping the abyss where things don't matter any more. At that moment madness seems such an inviting prospect, he wants to be consumed by it. And just as a tidal wave of darkness is enveloping him, he realises he has to avenge the wrongs done to his family, in particular, to his daughter. So he laughs, because there are no more tears and creeps into a kind of madness but at the same time his military instincts tell him he should be on the ball because he has got to fulfil his quest. It is not as though he goes mad or doesn't go mad it's something he seems to drift in and out of. And at the same time he uses madness because he knows it will lull Tamora, Saturninus and her sons into some kind of trap. Titus thinks he's pretending to be mad. So he's a bit madder than he thinks he is.
What I like about the development of Titus, is the journey he makes from a traditional, blinkered military figure to someone more humane I assume he wasn't around during Lavinia's formative years. I suspect she was educated and brought up by her uncle, Marcus, who taught her to love and honour her father and kept her on the straight and narrow. Only when she looses her limbs and her tongue does he start to communicate with her. He tries to learn how to read her signs when she can no longer speak. During the second half of the play, they find a kind of love for each other. That awareness of other people and the importance of family gives Titus his humanity, which hitherto I suspect he probably had but hadn't allowed to enter his life or mind. Before that, his focus was his men and war. He also develops an ironic sense of humour, an awareness of irony, a self-deprecating comedy - like in the fly scene when he keeps talking about their hands [see Act 3 scene 2]. I'm sure the fly scene was written for light relief, to prepare the audience for the darkness and horrors to come. It's like the Clown scene at the end of Antony and Cleopatra - I saw Richard Griffiths play the Clown and he brought the house down. It's a release that prepares the audience for the last for the last tragic movement of the play. The humour in that fly scene also serves to give Titus a bit more breath as a character - he's no longer just a broken, mad freak or whatever.
Bill wanted to invite laughter at certain times and then chop it. He wanted to be in control of the laughter and thought it would be rather sad if, having taken an audience through that whole story, the play ended in some kind of Gothic horror, Hammer House of Horror, or Taratino-esque laughter. Sometimes during previews, the audience were laughing and we weren't sure if they laughing at us or with us, for example during the 3 deaths at the end, when Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus kills Titus, and Lucius kills Saturninus. The rhythm at that point was the old rule of 3. It's one politicians always use for effect: "education, education, education" - a very powerful statement. But it can also be used in comedy and we realised we were getting laughs at the 3 deaths. The audience are stunned and shocked into a gasp by the death of Lavinia, which is wonderfully exciting to hear and then they laugh at the pie, which is good. That's welcome laughter but then you want to stop it. So we found that if we broke up the rule of 3 and had Lucius slowly walking over to a trapped Saturninus and stabbing him, there was total silence.
I would like an audience to think they've seen a really good play and make them wonder, as we do, why it is not revived more often. There are parallels with what is happening now and what's happened in recent history and that's why I think the play becomes more and more relevant the more it is revived. We just have to switch on our televisions to see that it is happening all the time. I find it very gratifying when people pick up on the play's relevance without having it rammed down their throats. I'd like the audience to be touched by the play and to see its relevance to their own lives.
Maureen Beattie plays Tamora in the current production of Titus Andronicus.
I saw the production Gregory Doran directed in at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg (South Africa) with Anthony Sher and Sello Maake ka Ncube when it played briefly at the National's Cottesloe Theatre a few years ago.
To be absolutely honest I really don't know who Tamora is. When they heard I was going to meet the director Bill Alexander about Titus Andronicus, everyone said "well you've got to play Tamora". But when I read the play, I said "Why? Why would I want to play Tamora?" I want to stress this is entirely my problem. The rehearsal period and working with Bill has been fantastic - Bill's done a brilliant job with this production and I know I am surrounded by fine people who are deeply excited about the play and who love it and believe in it passionately and David Bradley's both a man of genius and one of the nicest people on the planet - but playing Tamora is a leap of faith. I haven't found her and I don't know if I ever will but I am surrounded by fantastic people who I trust implicitly and I simply make the leap of faith each night.
I did very little research because Bill had done so much, which he shared with us at the start of rehearsals. The play is not set in the real world - it is a concocted mixture of Shakespeare's (well-informed) perception of Roman values and ancient traditions of the gods mixed with Shakespeare's own, real, Roman Catholic background. This season I am also playing Queen Elizabeth in Richard III who did exist and I did do a lot of research about her. But in the made-up world of Titus Andronicus I didn't really feel it would help. Instead, I felt it was my job to make the play come alive and to play what was on the page for each scene and each situation that Tamora finds herself in. With Bill's consent, I invented a back story for Tamora, in which she didn't have a husband and that all her sons were by different men, whom she hand-picked for their genes!
The Goths were pagan in origin, though they did later become Christian Romans and I wanted to find a goddess for Tamora. I chose Lilith because I read something once which said you had to be very careful when you invited Lilith to dinner because she always came with apocalyptic tragedy! That's why I have a snake tattoo on my neck. We think of snakes as being a bit sly and you've got to watch them because you never know when they might strike next. But they're also associated with wisdom and of course with Eve and the Garden of Eden.