As we delve deeper into the RSC’s Rome season, this month they are opening Shakespeare’s most brutal tragedies – Titus Andronicus. Which set in the midst of Rome, tells the tale of revenge, violence and family.
I spoke to Nia Gwynne, who is returning to the RSC to play the intensely complex character of Tamora. “Tamora is the queen of the goths,” she said. “When we first meet her, the Romans have been fighting for years and after ten long years Titus Andronicus returns triumphantly to Rome with Tamora and her three sons as prisoners of war.” Titus has 25 sons, 21 of which are dead, and so before he places his sons in the Andronicus family tomb, he sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son to appease the spirits of his dead children.
The character progression of Tamora throughout the piece is extraordinary. “She has a very powerful first speech where she appeals to Titus and says: ‘Don’t do this, don’t kill my son, he has only done what your sons did in the war – he fought for his country and shouldn’t be punished in this way,'” Nia said. The character of Tamora has been made to beg in the streets for her son’s life and after that plea is disregarded, Nia says that “vengeance becomes her best friend.” She added: “It is where she needs to touch back to emotionally to propel her on her way and I think it is remarkable what she does and horrific, and I think it is all the more horrific for us as an audience because it is a woman that is doing it. It is often said that Titus in his revenge plot only really does as much as Tamora does but it somehow sits more easily with us because a man is doing it perhaps.”
Nia believes people are so shocked by her actions because she acts with such barbarism and entirely without mercy. “I think we think of women as merciful and Tamora doesn’t show that – most notably when she orders her son to rape Titus’s virtuous daughter Lavinia. The idea that a woman would let that happen to another woman I think is still rightly such a horrific concept.” Nia explains that at this point, Tamora doesn’t even view the Andronicus’ as real people. “They treated her like an animal so she does the same,” Nia said. “That is the way I have to approach it because otherwise, you can’t play the scene. I find it very difficult as it is, so you have to kind of divorce yourself from seeing them as humans anymore. I think the great thing is that you see throughout the play Titus and Tamora locked into the complete relationship of revenge, they are very similar in many facets.”
“I think it is the most extraordinary journey of a character I have ever had to plot”
In regards to approaching the role, Nia is a strong believer in predominantly using the text. “I think everything you need is in there – she is a queen and is brought to her knees, captured and degraded and paraded through the streets of Rome with handcuffs – that was a great place for me to start,” she said. “She is a mother, I had not long ago became a mother myself so that is a useful element of her character for me to pull on, as she has just seen one of her children killed.” She describes how she uses that idea of a mother losing her son, and how that springboard would set her into this brutal journey of revenge.
It’s a challenging yet highly rewarding role for Nia to take on, she talked about how Tamora is such a brilliant actress as she is able to shapeshift. “She is gathering all the knowledge at her fingertips and computing it, and she is manipulating herself and her perception by others so that she can play that situation to her best advantage,” Nia explained as she expressed how she finds it a challenge to keep becoming the different personas of her character.
“You are having to find what Tamora’s truth is in every scene even though what she is presenting is a lie to the people around her. So whether she is playing merciful empress or innocent bystander she is lying in each scene, but she is doing it to further her revenge plot. That is really hard because she thinks so quickly and I am not sure I think as quickly as that, I am not as clever as she is so you have to really get on top of it and at the same time you have to play the truth of it. You have to believe her, you have to be beguiled by her, you have to watch it and think ‘yes she is completely pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes and I believe it.'”
“It does make sense to me why someone could be so lost in grief and anger that it would then propel them on the rest of the journey that she takes”
This particular production, directed by Blanche McIntyre is set in 2017. “We are approaching it as if the fall of Rome never happened,” said Nia. She feels that it makes it incredibly relevant as the themes and political issues mirror what is happening in our lives right now. It’s the desire for power which causes the brutality and extreme violence.
I have such affection for this company, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have ever been given a job here, so to come back more than once I feel so lucky and so grateful. The company are very important to me and I care very deeply about them so to be back working here is all sorts of dreams come true. I love it here, I love the building, the people and the work. I am extremely fortunate but I feel such care and affection for the place that it is very special. It has taken 20 years to get here and I am making the most of every moment.
Returning to the RSC after previously performing in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part I and II, Nia explained how delighted she is to be back working with the company again. “I have such affection for this company as they are so important to me. I love it here, I love the building, the people and the work, it has taken 20 years to get here and I am making the most of every moment.”
Nia expressed her gratitude to be playing the role of Tamora, “I think she is extraordinary, she is magnetic, electric and of course deeply flawed – which is what makes it so interesting,” she said. “She seemingly has all the answers but goes too far and I think that is what happens to characters when they are lost in emotion.”
Titus Andronicus plays in the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre from the 23nd of June to the 2nd of September, before transferring to the Barbican in London – tickets and information can be found here.