Brian Cox’s Titus Andronicus: “the greatest stage performance I’ve ever given”

Brian Cox in Titus Andronicus

Earlier in the week  an interview with Brian Cox (the actor not the scientist) was published in which he commented that the production of Titus Andronicus in the Swan Theatre in 1987 was “the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in the theatre”. The theatre itself had opened only the year before and this would be the first accepted Shakespeare play performed there.

Titus Andronicus was a novelty: it was the last of Shakespeare’s plays to be performed in Stratford, its first performance coming in 1955 during Laurence Olivier’s first season at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre  when he played Macbeth, Titus, and Malvolio in Twelfth Night. It was a demanding season for Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh too, as Lady Macbeth, Lavinia and Viola. Titus Andronicus was directed by rising star of the theatre, Peter Brook.

Later productions of Titus Andronicus in Stratford tended to be an add-on to related plays: it formed part of The Romans season directed by Trevor Nunn in 1972, and was half of the unlikely-sounding double-bill with The Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1981, both plays being cut by director John Barton. Titus, it seemed, couldn’t stand on its own, needing the help of the company’s most experienced directors.

1987 was different. Brian Cox, cast as Titus, was an accomplished actor though he’d never performed in Stratford before. As he mentions in his interview, he wanted to be directed by someone unusual. Deborah Warner was certainly that. For one thing she was a woman, and the RSC had a poor record in employing women directors. She was very much not from the Cambridge University background of each of the three previous Titus directors, having trained in stage management. She had founded the alternative Kick Theatre, bringing a collaborative approach to her directing. And she refused to cut the text (Peter Brook removed around 500 lines).

Few who experienced the production will have forgotten it. The first entry of the conquered Goths, chains clanging on the aluminium ladder that bound them, told you it was going to be inventive, perhaps a bit of a rough ride. The brutal setting of Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar currently at the Donmar reminded me of the spareness of Warner’s Titus Andronicus.

Vivien Leigh as Lavinia

The issue in staging Titus has always been the horrific violence of the play. Peter Brook ritualised it, Lavinia draping red ribbons from her arms and mouth after she had been mutilated (an idea re-used by the Japanese Titus in 2006). In the photos Vivien Leigh looks sorrowful but still composed and beautiful.

In 1987 Deborah Warner wanted to make the audience feel uncomfortable. Lavinia, played by Sonia Ritter, was released by her abusers who laughed mockingly as they copied her crawling around the stage like a wounded animal. Later she struggled agonisingly to communicate the details of her attack. The Swan Theatre audience was almost on top of the action. It was said that the stage managers kept a tally of the number of people who fainted at each performance, and a St John’s Ambulance was always present.

Sonia Ritter as Lavinia, Donald Sumpter as Marcus

Yet the many murders and mutilations were achieved without shedding gallons of stage blood, but suggested the horror using Shakespeare’s language and bold staging. Titus’s cutting off of his own hand was carried out, not in some dark corner of the stage but right at its edge (I won’t go into the details but on one occasion I was sitting in the front row as he did this, and somehow I couldn’t look).

The production centred on Cox’s full-on performance, gradually losing his grip as his family was cut down by Estelle Kohler’s revengeful, ferocious Tamora. As well as showing himself to be a master of Shakespeare’s language and a powerful tragic actor he demonstrated a flair for black comedy, bringing in the pie in the final scene with a mad gleam in his eye. When Saturninus called for Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius he always got a laugh on the line:
Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;

As the climax of the play where three people are killed in quick succession it’s a dangerous place to make the audience laugh. But Cox’s performance was well-judged: he calls it “the greatest stage performance I’ve ever given”.

The play deserves to be staged: in his review of the Globe’s 2006 production Michael Billington wrote “one of the pleasures of my theatre-going life has been to watch [Titus’s] restoration to public favour. Instead of a primitive, Marlovian gore fest, it is now seen as a study in monumental suffering”. This production is certainly one of the highlights of my Shakespeare-watching career and I’d say the finest production staged in the Swan Theatre. In 2013 another production of Titus Andronicus will make its way to the Swan stage – it’s going to be a difficult one to follow. You can find details, including photographs of RSC productions of the play here.  There’s also a full performance history of the play here.

And to show the other side of Cox’s character, do watch this YouTube video in which he undertakes a Hamlet masterclass with 2-year old Theo.

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4 Responses to Brian Cox’s Titus Andronicus: “the greatest stage performance I’ve ever given”

  1. George Allan says:

    Great post, I knew practically nothing about Titus Andronicus, you’re discription has left me wanting to know more. I love when that happens, the same thing happened with Coriolanus, I was aware of the play and something triggered my interest, I can’t remember what it was but I immersed myself in the play, now I think it may be my favourite. Im going to concentrate on Hamlet for a while, got the Arden 3rd edition for Xmas but I know what I’m like and I think Titus Andronicus, will haunt me and work it’s way into my head, till I’m ready to take it on. That’s a good thing by the way! Once again thank you for your blog, it’s always great to read about Brian Cox. You are a fantastic resource for me on my, Shakespeare journey.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      George thanks for your comment. Titus may well be an interesting play to read after Coriolanus and Hamlet, though it was written much earlier, and is extremely violent. I’d recommend Jonathan Bate’s Arden edition to give you a really good introduction.

  2. Claus Jakobsen says:

    An absolutely amazing staging Of Titus Andronicus, I think I can vouch for that, because if I’m not mistaken I saw it, with Brian Cox in the lead, in Aarhus in Denmark back there in ’87 or ’88. Having then recently graduated as an MA in English, I was thrilled beyond words by this truly breathtaking performance.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you so enjoyed this performance of one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays.

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