Titus Andronicus has got a reputation. It’s Shakespeare’s schlock horror moment, a gore fest that for centuries was considered too crass to be staged, and now prompts gleeful headlines about how many audience members have fainted at its dismemberments.
The latest director to have a crack, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is Blanche McIntyre, who acknowledges the play’s “bad taste” in combining distressing violence with a macabre humour.
“Laughter acts as a kind of safety valve,” she suggests. “There’s a moment halfway through when it has become pretty much unwatchable in terms of people suffering appalling things. And Titus, instead of weeping, laughs. And when he laughs, we can laugh; from that point on you watch in a different way, with a critical eye. And then at the end, it probably goes back again: you stop being able to laugh.”
Ah, the ending. Shakespeare has a mother eat her two sons, baked into pies by Roman war hero Titus as revenge after they raped his daughter Lavinia and cut off her hands and tongue. In a supposed mercy killing, Titus then slits Lavinia’s throat.
“The pies are hilarious, but when Lavinia is involved, it’s never funny,” says McIntyre. “I really feel the responsibility of it – if I put a foot wrong then I will not only give people a bad night out, but politically push a message I don’t want to push. That keeps me awake at night.”
McIntyre obviously relishes a challenge, however: she returns to the RSC after staging the rarely performed The Two Noble Kinsmen there last year. She adored the play, even if she feels she didn’t quite solve it – but then, she never does: “I can’t think of any play that I’ve got right; I don’t know if you can get them ‘right’.”
Which might come as a surprise to those who’ve watched her prolific, successful career. Varied, too: McIntyre’s tastes skip from classical drama to modern classics, forgotten plays to new writing. She scored an award-winning hit in rediscovering Emlyn Williams’ 1950 play Accolade, but has been equally feted for steering Dawn King’s new writing, revitalising Chekhov for Headlong, and staging sparkling Shakespearean comedies. What’s the unifying thread?
“The two things I love [in theatre] are exploiting the fact that it is clearly not real, and when a writer observes a particular oddness of human nature or experience. But you can find those in classic plays or new writing.”
Or in Shakespeare. Titus Andronicus is part of a Roman season at the RSC, with the politics of these plays feeling pertinent presently. But if Titus is rarely seen as a political play, in the way of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, the text rang all sorts of Brexit bells for McIntyre.
“This is a strongly political play about a country that can’t look properly to its future because its idea of itself is so rooted in the past,” she says. “Both the Trump slogan and Brexit slogan appealed to something lost: take control back, make America great again. In Titus, we’re in the late [declining] Roman empire, and there’s that chest beating and a patriotic fervour.”
McIntyre is explicitly setting the play in 2017; while it could be a little “on the nose”, it should help the politics leap out rather than being drowned out by the play’s infamous bloodiness. They share a set with the other togas-and-sandals productions of the season, but designer Robert Innes Hopkins will wrap marble stairs and classical columns in security fences and glass corridors. “Suddenly, it looks like Trump Tower. Antique and modern dick swinging – it’s all the same.”
A portrayal of a dick-swinging, macho society is another way the play chimes with today: “Men that like to threaten women are able to do that more freely, on the internet and in life,” suggests McIntyre. Figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos have been a touchstone in rehearsal: “That kind of alt-right, angry-young-man re-appropriating masculinity. Privilege, in men, used to attempt to silence women.”
This silencing is obviously a crucial part of Shakespeare’s text, but is the mutilation of a woman’s body something we really need to see – again? There have been increasing conversations about whether rape as a plot device is dangerously overused in TV and film, and theatre is not immune: consider the controversy surrounding the staged sexual abuse of Hedda Gabler in Ivo van Hove’s recent production.
McIntyre, who has a fierce, self-questioning intelligence, has already thought about this, of course. “It’s about inviting sympathy instead of inviting voyeurism. There’s a difference between oppressing women on stage when the text doesn’t require it, and when the text is saying: ‘Violence in a culture can lead to appalling acts of violence and we need you not to look away from the consequences.’ I hope that’s valid… but I don’t know.”
Q&A: Blanche McIntyre
What was your first non-theatre job?
I had a whole load of terrible jobs in my early 20s: cold-calling, market research. Grim.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The first job I had with professional actors was The Master and Margarita: I was 23, I adapted it myself and it was at the Greenwich Playhouse. I didn’t know what I was doing; it was chaotic and wonderful. I was first paid for a show nine years later; that was The Seven Year Itch.
What’s your next job?
The Norman Conquests at Chichester Festival Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That no one cares about your undergraduate credits.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I have influences all over, whoever I think does something good I want to steal it.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
The other side wants to love you. If you don’t get the part it’s almost always the chemistry. It doesn’t mean you weren’t good, it doesn’t even mean you weren’t right, you just weren’t the rightest.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I would have loved to be an illustrator. There is something about looking at the world and distilling it into something else…
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t think I do.
The Roman season is also “enormously male” in its casting; necessary perhaps, but still concerning. “As a female director, there was a lot of me that was very unhappy about that. Gender-blind and 50/50 split casting is something I’m hugely for. So what I need to do now is rebalance it in the work that follows.”
This is her fourth Shakespeare; she has also directed As You Like It and The Comedy of Errors at Shakespeare’s Globe. Is she ready to run a building – and was she tempted by the vacancy there? She demurs from wading in on the latter and says she isn’t ready for an artistic directorship yet anyway.
“My anxiety about running a building is that I would run it straight into the ground. When you’re directing a play, you’re serving the world of the play; when you’re running a building, you’re serving the world. You’re dealing with the theatre landscape, and so your eyeline needs to be so much higher, your take so much broader. At the moment I’m a bit intimidated by that task.”
Still, freelancing isn’t always easy. McIntyre repeatedly points out that she didn’t get paid to direct until she was 32, after nine years of working for love, not money.
Even so, she recognises her own privilege: “I had parents in London – fantastic, lucky me.” Her father’s a sculptor, her mother a publisher; she attended St Paul’s School in London followed by classics at Oxford. But the expectation young people will work for free, she acknowledges, is a huge issue, exacerbating theatre’s class problem.
“I worry that it squeezes out anyone who can’t afford it – and that is terrible for the theatre landscape. I am worried that the important voices are getting drowned out and that we will simply have a great, middle-class vocation.”
Still, she does credit unpaid work with instilling within her a fringe spirit: if no one’s getting paid, they better enjoy themselves, and it’s the director’s job to make a cast feel included creatively. “If a show is made collectively, they will own it, and often it will be better.”
Not that such an egalitarian, ensemble approach always works. “Occasionally you do get actors who throw their weight around and it’s incredibly unpleasant. They’re just not happy that they’re getting the same treatment as everyone else,” McIntyre laughs at her own frustrated idealism: “Hierarchies are bad for everyone, but goddammit – you can’t always build a utopia.”
CV: Blanche McIntyre
Born: 1980, Hammersmith, London
Training: Double first in classics, Corpus Christi College, Oxford; postgraduate course in directing, Drama Studio London; National Theatre Studio director’s course
Landmark productions: Foxfinder, Finborough Theatre, London (2011); Accolade, Finborough Theatre, London (2011); St James Theatre, London (2014); The Seagull, Headlong tour (2013); As You Like It, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (2015); The Two Noble Kinsmen, Royal Shakespeare Company (2016); Tosca, English Touring Opera (2017)
Awards: Critics’ Circle most promising newcomer for Accolade and Foxfinder, 2011; UK Theatre award for best director for The Seagull, 2013
Agent: Giles Smart, United Agents