Wednesday, 14 June 2006

Titus Andronicus - Shakespeare's Globe 2006

Titus Andronicus 
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 space.

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.

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