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Titus Andronicus (1985)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Titus Andronicus (1985)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 27/4/1985, colour, 167 mins
DirectorJane Howell
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerShaun Sutton
DesignerTony Burrough
MusicDudley Simpson

Cast: Trevor Peacock (Titus Andronicus); Eileen Atkins (Queen Tamora); Anna Calder-Marshall (Lavinia); Brian Protheroe (Saturninus); Hugh Quarshie (Aaron); Edward Hardwicke (Marcus); Gavin Richards (Lucius)

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The great Roman general Titus Andronicus returns from the wars in triumph, but is comprehensively outmanoeuvred by wily politicians, and his family pays a ghastly price for his naïveté.

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The last BBC Television Shakespeare production, Titus Andronicus was broadcast several months after the rest of the final series, prompting speculation as to whether the play's graphic limb-lopping, rape and cannibalism were too much for an increasingly censorious cultural environment. In fact, a BBC strike had postponed the taping, which had the happy side-effect that when director Jane Howell finally entered the studio, her actors were unusually familiar with her interpretation. Widely regarded as one of the most successful BBC Shakespeare productions, Howell's Titus garnered particular praise for its intelligent and unsensationalised approach to a notoriously troublesome text.

After contemplating a production explicitly set in Northern Ireland (which, although potentially fascinating, would have broken the series' ground rules), Howell settled for a semi-stylised approach reminiscent of her acclaimed Henry VI/Richard III cycle, with one huge set standing in for the play's various locations. She also added a dramatic device not in the text: that of imagining the play as seen through the horrified eyes of Lucius, Titus' grandson (a device adopted by Julie Taymor for her otherwise quite different feature film Titus, US/Italy, 1999).

The major challenge in staging Titus Andronicus is that the relentless piling-up of horror upon horror frequently teeters on the edge of outright farce (Shakespeare himself emphasises this when he has Titus laughing hysterically at the realisation that he has cut off his own hand only to receive his sons' severed heads as a very poor exchange). Howell's production acknowledges this - especially in the scenes with Hugh Quarshie's unusually jovial Aaron - but she offsets the excesses with ritualised solemnity, especially in the opening and closing scenes where bodies are laid out in the Andronici tomb as the survivors reflect on their loss.

Trevor Peacock, whose gravelly voice suggests a lifetime of shouting battlefield orders, previously played Talbot and Jack Cade for Howell's Henry VI cycle. His Titus has elements of both: the noble warrior turned vengeful near-anarchist as events push him beyond what any man can endure, his cleaving to longstanding tradition (even to the point where it involves personally killing family members) rendered pointless when faced with Machiavellian politicians. In this, he's set against Brian Protheroe's giggling, immature Saturninus and Eileen Atkins' Tamora, whose ruthlessly logical presentation of her rationale for letting her sons rape and mutilate Titus' daughter Lavinia (Anna Calder-Marshall) is one of the play's most chilling moments.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Lavinia's plea (3:04)
2. Titus' bargain (2:59)
3. Poor harmless fly (2:40)
4. A dainty feast (3:18)
Atkins, Eileen (1934-)
Sutton, Shaun (1919-2004)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Titus Andronicus On Screen