Shakespeare's Globe, London, UK.
The second play in ‘The Edges of Rome’ season at the Globe, this production of Titus Andronicus,
directed by Lucy Bailey, is an eclectic mix of comedic horror,
football-style chants, high melodrama, and the truly gory. With the
stage completely swathed in black cloth, and with fabric panels creating
a roof (velarium) for the Globe for the first time ever, the setting
for this piece is sombre and funereal from the start.
Since the opening night of this play, there have been articles in the
media warning theatregoers of the gore-coated gruesomeness of this
production. Audience members are fainting in higher numbers than usual
(so we are told) and perhaps it is not just from the summer heat.
Director Bailey wanted to ‘introduce a certain level of realism - of
real blood’ to the piece, deciding that ‘a ritualised idea of violence
would not communicate so well to a contemporary audience’. And bloody it
is indeed: Lavinia displaying the ragged-flesh of her wrist stumps and
dribbling red streaks; blood-soaked heads in sacks, loose hands flying
about. And in the interval the stage is mopped in preparation for a
fresh bout of slaughter. There can be no doubt that the graphicness of
these scenes and the media warnings about them has attracted a
congregation composed of curious thrill-seekers; of those who would not
usually be interested in such a play as Titus but who have come
for the blood and are enjoying the splattering. The play itself contains
something of the gladiatorial, appealing to the baser instincts of
human nature: something which becomes particularly pronounced in such a
setting as the Globe, where the Yard is used as part of the performance
Douglas Hodge as Titus was not quite the ‘fierce Andronicus’ that I
expected; and Geraldine Alexander as Tamora possessed a wheedling,
rather than commanding, wickedness, at times lapsing into melodrama. The
actions of both Titus and Tamora seemed to be based on spite rather
than fury, and I felt that genuine passion was lacking in both. To my
mind, these have always been characters of power and nobility, of
unrelenting passion; but in this production the tragedies that they
cause are brought down to the level of petty squabbles. Both actors play
up the blackly comic aspects of their characters, keeping the play
teetering on the verge of farce without ever fully entering that
territory. This is certainly a fresh face for Titus Andronicus:
the irreverent tone of the production amplifying the senselessness of
the deceptions and revenge that the characters wreak on one another.
Laura Rees gives us a torn and forlorn but nevertheless upright Lavinia;
silent and spasming with all her grief drawn inside her. Richard
O’Callaghan is a quietly spoken Marcus Andronicus, rather neglected and
attention-seeking in the shadow of his brother. David Sturzaker as
Lucius is the only truly noble character; outwardly strong and inwardly
gentle; horrified at the events that have taken place and seeking
justice rather than revenge. Richard Riddell and Sam Alexander as Chiron
and Demetrius are wonderfully repugnant and stupid, never taking their
actions for more than childish pranks, and led on by the scheming Aaron.
Indeed Aaron (Shaun Parkes) is the real power here. Strong and witty,
he is a likeable villain, despite his despicable deeds, and shows
surprising tenderness in his protection of his baby son.
Much of the horror of this play is tempered with comedy: Tamora’s
nursemaid on all fours being stuck like a pig; the fight for who will
lose their hand degenerating into a children’s game; Demetrius strung up
for slaughter with an apple in his mouth. And yet this comic thread
intrudes rather too much in the final scenes of the play. The banquet
scene - the climax of all the horror - is somewhat lacking in gravitas
and is over far too quickly. Titus bounces about in a huge chef’s hat,
spilling food madly. Tamora looks more surprised than shocked on finding
that her sons are in the pie, and I almost expected her to continue
eating. Then suddenly, everyone is dead. For me, this vital scene is the
weakest part of the production. I would have liked a little more
tension, a little more revulsion.
But overall, this is an extremely enjoyable production, containing some
wonderfully innovative elements: the hunt scene, with horn-like musical
instruments in the shape of dogs and quarry played out in the
Yard/Arena; the use of moveable towers as platforms for official address
and rabble-rousing; processions and chanting; the Goths dressed as
Celts, and later as Roman Furies in Japanese masks. This production is
accessible and widely-appealing, with the Roman drumbeat throughout
creating a feeling of gravity, a sense of imminent destruction, and
suggestive of a heartbeat that will soon stop.
This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.