The earliest definite recorded performance of Titus was on 24 January 1594, when Philip Henslowe noted a performance by Sussex's Men of Titus & ondronicus. Although Henslowe doesn't specify a theatre, it was most likely The Rose. Repeated performances were staged on 28 January and 6 February. On 5 and 12 June, Henslowe recorded two further performances of the play, at the Newington Butts Theatre by the combined Admiral's Men and Lord Chamberlain's Men. The 24 January show earned three pounds eight shillings, and the performances on 29 January and 6 February earned two pounds each, making it the most profitable play of the season. The next recorded performance was on 1 January 1596, when a troupe of London actors, possibly Chamberlain's Men, performed the play during the Christmas festivities at Burley-on-the-Hill in the manor of Sir John Harington, Baron of Exton.
Some scholars, however, have suggested that the January 1594 performance may not be the first recorded performance of the play. On 11 April 1592, Henslowe recorded ten performances by Derby's Men of a play called Titus and Vespasian, which some, such as E.K. Chambers, have identified with Shakespeare's play. Most scholars, however, believe that Titus and Vespasian is more likely a different play about the two real life Roman Emperors, Vespasian, who ruled from 69 to 79, and his son Titus, who ruled from 79 to 81. The two were subjects of many narratives at the time, and a play about them would not have been unusual. Dover Wilson further argues that the theory that Titus and Vespasian is Titus Andronicus probably originated in an 1865 English translation of a 1620 German translation of Titus, in which Lucius had been renamed Vespasian.
Although it is known that the play was definitely popular in its day, there is no other recorded performance for many years. In January 1668, it was listed by the Lord Chamberlain as one of twenty-one plays owned by the King's Company which had, at some stage previously, been acted at Blackfriars Theatre; "A Catalogue of part of his Mates Servants Playes as they were formally acted at the Blackfryers & now allowed of to his Mates Servants at ye New Theatre." However, no other information is provided. During the late seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, adaptations of the play came to dominate the stage, and after the Burley performance in 1596 and the possible Blackfriars performance some time prior to 1667, there is no definite recorded performance of the Shakespearean text in England until the early twentieth century.
After over 300 years absent from the English stage, the play returned on 8 October 1923, in a production directed by Robert Atkins at The Old Vic, as part of the Vic's presentation of the complete dramatic works over a seven-year period. The production featured Wilfred Walter as Titus, Florence Saunders as Tamora, George Hayes as Aaron and Jane Bacon as Lavinia. Reviews at the time praised Hayes' performance but criticised Walter's as monotonous. Atkins staged the play with a strong sense of Elizabethan theatrical authenticity, with a plain black backdrop, and a minimum of props. Critically, the production met with mixed reviews, some welcoming the return of the original play to the stage, some questioning why Atkins had bothered when various adaptations were much better and still extant. Nevertheless, the play was a huge box office success, one of the most successful in the Complete Works presentation.
The earliest known performance of the Shakespearean text in the United States was in April 1924 when the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity of Yale University staged the play under the direction of John M. Berdan and E.M. Woolley as part of a double bill with Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Whilst some material was removed from 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4, the rest of the play was left intact, with much attention devoted to the violence and gore. The cast list for this production has been lost.
The best known and most successful production of the play in England was directed by Peter Brook for the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1955, starring Laurence Olivier as Titus, Maxine Audley as Tamora, Anthony Quayle as Aaron and Vivien Leigh as Lavinia. Brook had been offered the chance to direct Macbeth but had controversially turned it down, and instead decided to stage Titus. The media predicted that the production would be a massive failure, and possibly spell the end of Brook's career, but on the contrary, it was a huge commercial and critical success, with many of the reviews arguing that Brook's alterations improved Shakespeare's script (Marcus' lengthy speech upon discovering Lavinia was removed and some of the scenes in Act 4 were reorganised). Olivier in particular was singled out for his performance and for making Titus a truly sympathetic character. J.C. Trewin for example, wrote "the actor had thought himself into the hell of Titus; we forgot the inadequacy of the words in the spell of the projection." The production is also noted for muting the violence; Chiron and Demetrius were killed off stage; the heads of Quintus and Mutius were never seen; the nurse is strangled, not stabbed; Titus' hand was never seen; blood and wounds were symbolised by red ribbons. Edward Trostle Jones summed up the style of the production as employing "stylised distancing effects." The scene where Lavinia first appears after the rape was singled out by critics as being especially horrific, with her wounds portrayed by red streamers hanging from her wrists and mouth. Some reviewers however, found the production too beautified, making it unrealistic, with several commenting on the cleanness of Lavinia's face after her tongue has supposedly been cut out. After its hugely successful Royal Shakespeare Theatre run, the play went on tour around Europe. No video recordings of the production are known, although there are many photographs available.
The success of the Brook production seems to have provided an impetus for directors to tackle the play, and ever since 1955, there has been a steady stream of performances on the English and American stages. After Brook, the next major production came in 1967, when Douglas Seale directed an extremely graphic and realistic presentation at the Centre Stage in Baltimore with costumes that recalled the various combatants in World War II. Seale's production employed a strong sense of realism to make parallels between the contemporary period and that of Titus, and thus comment on the universality of violence and revenge. Seale set the play in the 1940s and made pointed parallels with concentration camps, the massacre at Katyn, the Nuremberg Rallies and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Saturninus was based on Benito Mussolini and all his followers dressed entirely in black; Titus was modelled after a Prussian Army officer; the Andronici wore Nazi insignia and the Goths at the end of the play were dressed in Allied Forces uniforms; the murders in the last scene are all carried out by gunfire, and at the end of the play swastikas rained down onto the stage. The play received mixed reviews with many critics wondering why Seale had chosen to associate the Andronici with Nazism, arguing that it created a mixed metaphor.
Later in 1967, as a direct reaction to Seale's realistic production, Gerald Freedman directed a performance for Joseph Papp's Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Manhattan, starring Jack Hollander as Titus, Olympia Dukakis as Tamora, Moses Gunn as Aaron and Erin Martin as Lavinia. Freedman had seen Seale's production and felt it failed because it worked by "bringing into play our sense of reality in terms of detail and literal time structure." He argued that when presented realistically, the play simply doesn't work, as it raises too many practical question, such as why does Lavinia not bleed to death, why does Marcus not take her to the hospital immediately, why does Tamora not notice that the pie tastes unusual, exactly how do both Martius and Quintus manage to fall into a hole? Freedman argued that "if one wants to create a fresh emotional response to the violence, blood and multiple mutilations of Titus Andronicus, one must shock the imagination and subconscious with visual images that recall the richness and depth of primitive rituals." As such, the costumes were purposely designed to represent no particular time or place but were instead based on those of the Byzantine Empire and Feudal Japan. Additionally, the violence was stylised; instead of swords and daggers, wands were used and no contact was ever made. The colour scheme was hallucinatory, changing mid-scene. Characters wore classic masks of comedy and tragedy. The slaughter in the final scene was accomplished symbolically by having each character wrapped in a red robe as they died. A narrator was also used (played by Charles Dance), who, prior to each act, would announce what was going to happen in the upcoming act, thus undercutting any sense of realism. The production received generally positive reviews, with Mildred Kuner arguing "Symbolism rather than gory realism was what made this production so stunning."
In 1972, Trevor Nunn directed an RSC production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as part of a presentation of the four Roman plays, starring Colin Blakely as Titus, Margaret Tyzack as Tamora, Calvin Lockhart as Aaron and Janet Suzman as Lavinia. Colin Blakely and John Wood as a vicious and maniacal Saturninus received particularly positive reviews. This production took the realistic approach and did not shirk from the more specific aspects of the violence; for example, Lavinia has trouble walking after the rape, which, it is implied, was anal rape. Nunn believed the play asked profound questions about the sustainability of Elizabethan society, and as such, he linked the play to the contemporary period to ask the same questions of late twentieth-century England; he was "less concerned with the condition of ancient Rome than with the morality of contemporary life." In his program notes, Nunn famously wrote "Shakespeare's Elizabethan nightmare has become ours." He was especially interested in the theory that decadence had led to the collapse of Rome. At the end of 4.2, for example, there was an on-stage orgy, and throughout the play, supporting actors appeared in the backgrounds dancing, eating, drinking and behaving outrageously. Also in this vein, the play opened with a group of people paying homage to a waxwork of an obese emperor reclining on a couch and clutching a bunch of grapes.
The play was performed for the first time at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada in 1978, when it was directed by Brian Bedford, starring William Hutt as Titus, Jennifer Phipps as Tamora, Alan Scarfe as Aaron and Domini Blithe as Lavinia. Bedford went with neither stylisation nor realism; instead the violence simply tended to happen off-stage, but everything else was realistically presented. The play received mixed reviews with some praising its restraint and others arguing that the suppression of the violence went too far. Many cited the final scene, where despite three onstage stabbings, not one drop of blood was visible, and the reveal of Lavinia, where she was totally bloodless despite her mutilation. This production cut Lucius' final speech and instead ended with Aaron alone on the stage as Sibyl predicts the fall of Rome in lines written by Bedford himself. As such, "for affirmation and healing under Lucius the production substituted a sceptical modern theme of evil triumphant and Rome's decadence."
A celebrated, and unedited production, (according to Jonathan Bate, not a single line from Q1 was cut) was directed by Deborah Warner in 1987 at The Swan and remounted at Barbican's Pit in 1988 for the RSC, starring Brian Cox as Titus, Estelle Kohler as Tamora, Peter Polycarpou as Aaron and Sonia Ritter as Lavinia. Met with almost universally positive reviews, Jonathan Bate regards it as the finest production of any Shakespearean play of the entire 1980s. Using a small cast, Warner had her actors address the audience from time to time throughout the play and often had actors leave the stage and wander out into the auditorium. Opting for a realist presentation, the play had a warning posted in the pit "This play contains scenes which some people may find disturbing," and numerous critics noted how, after the interval at many shows, empty seats had appeared in the audience. Warner's production was considered so successful, both critically and commercially, that the RSC did not stage the play again until 2003.
In 1988, Mark Rucker directed a realistic production at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, starring J. Kenneth Campbell as Titus, Molly Maycock as Tamora, Elizabeth Atkeson as Lavinia, and an especially well-received performance by Bruce A. Young as Aaron. Campbell presented Titus in a much more sympathetic light than usual; for example, he kills Mutius by accident, pushing him so that he falls against a tree, and his refusal to allow Mutius to be buried was performed as if in a dream state. Prior to the production, Rucker had Young work out and get in shape so that by the time of the performance, he weighed 240 lbs. Standing at six foot four, his Aaron was purposely designed to be the most physically imposing character on the stage. Additionally, he was often positioned as standing on hills and tables, with the rest of the cast below him. When he appears with the Goths, he is not their prisoner, but willingly enters their camp in pursuit of his baby, the implication being that without this one weakness, he would have been invincible.
In 1994, Julie Taymor directed the play at the Theater for the New City. The production featured a prologue and epilogue set in the modern era, foregrounded the character of Young Lucius, who acts as a kind of choric observer of events, and starred Robert Stattel as Titus, Melinda Mullins as Tamora, Harry Lennix as Aaron and Miriam Healy-Louie as Lavinia. Heavily inspired in her design by Joel-Peter Witkin, Taymor used stone columns to represent the people of Rome, who she saw as silent and incapable of expressing any individuality or subjectivity. Controversially, the play ended with the implication that Lucius had killed Aaron's baby, despite his vow not to.
In 1995, Gregory Doran directed a production at the Royal National Theatre, which also played at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, starring Antony Sher as Titus, Dorothy Ann Gould as Tamora, Sello Maake as Aaron and Jennifer Woodbine as Lavinia. Although Doran explicitly denied any political overtones, the play was set in a modern African context and made explicit parallels to South African politics. In his production notes, which Doran co-wrote with Sher, he stated, "Surely, to be relevant, theatre must have an umbilical connection to the lives of the people watching it." One particularly controversial decision was to have the play spoken in indigenous accents rather than Received Pronunciation, which allegedly resulted in many white South Africans refusing to see the play. Writing in Plays International in August 1995, Robert Lloyd Parry argued "the questions raised by Titus went far beyond the play itself [to] many of the tensions that exist in the new South Africa; the gulf of mistrust that still exists between blacks and whites […] Titus Andronicus has proved itself to be political theatre in the truest sense."
For the first time since 1987, the RSC staged the play in 2003, under the direction of Bill Alexander and starring David Bradley as Titus, Maureen Beattie as Tamora, Joe Dixon as Aron and Eve Myles as Lavinia. Convinced that Act 1 was by George Peele, Alexander felt he was not undermining the integrity of Shakespeare by drastically altering it; for example, Saturninus and Tamora are present throughout, they never leave the stage; there is no division between the upper and lower levels; all mention of Mutius is absent; and over 100 lines were removed.
In 2003, the Hudson Shakespeare Company of New Jersey, director John Trigonis added a few interesting twists. The first was a call out to several films, most notably the Tamora and sons dressing as revenge were patterned after A Clockwork Orange and Titus and his family fashioned after Full Metal Jacket. He also dispensed with Aaron a black moor and baby but had him played by a woman in a lesbian relationship with Tamora. Aaron as puppet master of events was stressed more than the racial overtones present in the text.
In 2006, two major productions were staged within a few weeks of one another. The first opened on 29 May at Shakespeare's Globe, directed by Lucy Bailey and starring Douglas Hodge as Titus, Geraldine Alexander as Tamora, Shaun Parkes as Aaron and Laura Rees as Lavinia. Bailey focused on a realistic presentation throughout the production; for example, after her mutilation, Lavinia is covered from head to toe in blood, with her stumps crudely bandaged, and raw flesh visible beneath. So graphic was Bailey's use of realism that at several productions, audience members fainted upon Lavinia's appearance. The production was also controversial insofar as the Globe had a roof installed for the first time in its history. The decision was taken by designer William Dudley, who took as his inspiration a feature of the Colosseum known as a velarium – a cooling system which consisted of a canvas-covered, net-like structure made of ropes, with a hole in the centre. Dudley made it as a PVC awning which was intended to darken the auditorium.
The second 2006 production opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on 9 June as part of the Complete Works Festival, under the title Taitasu Andoronikasu. Directed by Yukio Ninagawa, it starred Kotaro Yoshida as Titus, Rei Asami as Tamora, Shun Oguri as Aaron and Hitomi Manaka as Lavinia. Performed in Japanese, the original English text was projected as surtitles onto the back of the stage. In stark contrast to Bailey's production, theatricality was emphasised; the play begins with the company still rehearsing and getting into costume and the stage hands still putting the sets together. The production followed the 1955 Brook production in its depiction of violence; actress Hitomi Manaka appeared after the rape scene with stylised red ribbons coming from her mouth and arms, substituting for blood. Throughout the play, at the back of the stage, a huge marble wolf can be seen from which feed Romulus and Remus, with the implication being that Rome is a society based on animalistic origins. The play ends with Young Lucius holding Aaron's baby out to the audience and crying out "The horror! The horror!"
Several reviews of the time made much of the manner in which each production approached the appearance of Lavinia after the rape; "At Shakespeare's Globe, the groundlings are fainting at the mutilations in Lucy Bailey's coarse but convincing production. To Stratford-upon-Avon, Yukio Ninagawa brings a Japanese staging so stylised that it keeps turning the horror into visual poetry." Speaking of Bailey's production, Eleanor Collins of Cahiers Élisabéthains, said of the scene, "audience members turned their heads away in real distress." Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph called Lavinia "almost too ghastly to behold." Michael Billington of The Guardian said her slow shuffle onto the stage "chills the blood." Sam Marlowe of The Times saw Bailey's use of realism as extremely important for the moral of the production as a whole; "violated, her hands and her tongue cruelly cut away, she stumbles into view drenched in blood, flesh dangling from her hacked wrists, moaning and keening, almost animalistic. It's the production's most powerful symbolic image, redolent of the dehumanising effects of war." Of Ninagawa's production, some critics felt the use of stylisation damaged the impact of the scene. Benedict Nightingale of The Times, for example, asked "is it enough to suggest bloodletting by having red ribbons flow from wrists and throats?" Similarly, The Guardian 's Michael Billington, who had praised Bailey's use of realistic effects, wrote "At times I felt that Ninagawa, through stylised images and Handelian music, unduly aestheticised violence." Some critics, however, felt the stylisation was more powerful than Bailey's realism; Neil Allan and Scott Revers of Cahiers Élisabéthains, for example, wrote "Blood itself was denoted by spools of red thread spilling from garments, limbs and Lavinia's mouth. Cruelty was stylised; the visceral became the aesthetic." Similarly, Paul Taylor, writing for The Independent, wrote "Gore is represented by swatches of red cords that tumble and trail from wounded wrists and mouths. You might think that this method had a cushioning effect. In fact it concentrates and heightens the horror." Ninagawa himself said ""The violence is all there. I am just trying to express these things in a different way from any previous production." In her 2013 essay, "Mythological Reconfigurations on the Contemporary Stage: Giving a New Voice to Philomela in Titus Andronicus", which directly compares the depictions of the two Lavinias, Agnès Lafont writes of Ninagawa's production that Lavinia's appearance functions as a "visual emblem"; "Bloodshed and beauty create a stark dissonance [...] Distancing itself from the violence it stages thanks to "dissonance," the production presents Lavinia onstage as if she were a painting [...] Ninagawa's work distances itself from cruelty, as the spectacle of suffering is stylised. Ribbons that represent blood [...] are symbolic means of filtering the aching spectacle of an abused daughter, and yet the spectacle retains its shocking potential and its power of empathy all the while intellectualizing it."
In 2007, Gale Edwards directed a production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center for the Arts, starring Sam Tsoutsouvas as Titus, Valerie Leonard as Tamora, Colleen Delany as Lavinia and Peter Macon as Aaron. Set in an unspecific modern milieu, props were kept to a minimum, with lighting and general staging kept simple, as Edwards wanted the audience to concentrate on the story, not the staging. The production received generally very favourable reviews.
In 2011, Michael Sexton directed a modern military dress production at The Public Theater on a minimalistic set made of plywood boards. The production had a low budget and much of it was spent on huge volumes of blood that literally drenched the actors in the final scene, as Sexton said he was determined to outdo his contemporaries in terms of the amount of on-stage blood in the play. The production starred Jay O. Sanders (who was nominated for a Lucille Lortel) as Titus, Stephanie Roth Haberle as Tamora, Ron Cephas Jones as Aaron and Jennifer Ikeda as Lavinia.
In 2013, Michael Fentiman directed the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Stephen Boxer as Titus, Katy Stephens as Tamora, Kevin Harvey as Aaron and Rose Reynolds as Lavinia. Emphasising the gore and violence, the production carried a trailer with warnings of "graphic imagery and scenes of butchery." It played at The Swan until October 2013. Also in 2013, the Hudson Shakespeare Company staged a production directed by Jon Ciccarelli as part of a special Halloween festival for the Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery. The production contrasted a military and modern Goth culture, but quickly disintegrated into an anarchic state, stressing the black comedy of the play.
Outside Britain and the United States, other significant productions include Qiping Xu's 1986 production in China, which drew political parallels to Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards; Peter Stein's 1989 production in Italy which evoked images of twentieth century Fascism; Daniel Mesguich's 1989 production in Paris, which set the entire play in a crumbling library, acting as a symbol for Roman civilisation; Nenni Delmestre's 1992 production in Zagreb which acted as a metaphor for the struggles of the Croatian people; and Silviu Purcărete's 1992 Romanian production, which explicitly avoided using the play as a metaphor for the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu (this production is one of the most successful plays ever staged in Romania, and it was revived every year up to 1997).