Men inflicting violent acts on women, racial prejudice and stereotyping, mental health issues, political chicanery, a royal family in potential turmoil over the colour of a baby’s skin. No, not the headline stories in a contemporary newspaper but just some of the key themes in a play written and performed over 400 years ago. Titus Andronicus is right on the button and shows just how irrelevant, saying Shakespeare’s work is irrelevant, can be. The dramatist’s early career hit is famed for being a bloodbath and never has this been truer than in the production at the Globe Theatre from 2014 (revived from an earlier outing in 2006). Its catalogue of nihilism, murder, rape, mutilation, mental cruelty and cannibalism evidently proved too much for some of the live audience with a handful of them fainting at most performances including The Independent’s drama critic.
Director Lucy Bailey considered this to be a badge of distinction: “I find it all rather wonderful. That people can connect so much to the characters and emotion that they have such a visceral effect. I used to get disappointed if only three people passed out.” This recording didn’t actually show anyone keeling over but I could well understand why they might have as each bloody act sought to up the ante on the last. Is this all to detract from the relative weakness of the script itself? Possibly for it is not renowned for its poetic beauty, psychologically accurate characters or credible plot lines. Rather it taps into the then fashionable vogue for highly wrought histrionic revenge tragedy and 14 characters die horribly (15 if you count an unfortunate fly) mostly on stage; it has been calculated that there are 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines of the play and this production makes the most of every opportunity.
Titus returns from the wars a victorious general with his prisoners the Goth queen Tamora and her sons in tow, one of whom he then has ritually butchered. He then fails to seize the offered opportunity of becoming Rome’s Emperor which is power grabbed by the Caligula-like Saturninus who also takes Tamora as his consort even though she instantly starts playing away with the totally amoral Aaron. A cycle of revenge, counter revenge and counter-counter revenge then ensues. Titus’s daughter Lavinia is raped and mutilated by Tamora’s remaining sons; he loses his mind and his left hand. Atrocity piles on atrocity and even the innocent are not safe. It’s so ridiculous that it almost becomes a splatterfest pantomime especially when Titus serves up Tamora’s sons in a gory looking pie; Aaron’s murder of the midwife is particularly horrendous.
The production uses some elements of immersive theatre with the audience standing in for the Roman crowd which has a good chance of getting showered with Kensington gore or wine from Bacchus’ frequent forays into their midst. Characters are often wheeled through the throng on small, raised platforms and there’s frequent use made of very loud drumming and trumpets in Django Bates’s score used to ratchet up the noise/stress levels. William Dudley’s funereal set makes it clear we are not in for a jolly romp and his costume design looks suitably barbaric, particularly the extensive body art of the Goths. The director seems to have encouraged performances in the suitably grand guignol style although the text, it has to be said, is very well delivered and there is total clarity about what is happening even in some baffling bits where arrows are fired into the sky as messages to the Gods and a comedy pigeon seller does his routine.
William Gaunt as Titus initially seems very mannered with a slightly stilted delivery, but it transpires the actor is playing the long game and by the time his reason crumbles and, especially when we get to the “Ready Steady Cook” finale, his characterisation makes perfect sense. Indira Varma makes Tamora a figure who will stop at absolutely nothing to secure her sons’ futures and provides an interesting point of comparison with the mother in David Mamet’s The Christopher Boy’s Communion reviewed yesterday (click here). Obi Abili rises above the stereotypes perpetrated in Shakespeare’s text and makes a fascinating villain out of Aaron, Flora Spencer-Longhurst is a porcelain doll-like Lavinia who clearly portrays the trauma she has undergone, and Matthew Needham is excellent as a debauched but clearly insecure Saturninus. I was also impressed by Ian Gelder’s considered portrayal of the other Andronicus brother, Marcus, making him a thoroughly decent man caught up in horrendous events.
If nothing else, this production really shows the venue being put to superb use and it’s interesting to see what was a minor theatrical cause celebre a few years ago. Although I’ve seen some claims that the play should be reconsidered as one of Shakespeare’s major tragedies, I don’t think I can go with that. It’s an interesting stage in the dramatist’s development and a clear attempt to popularise his work but to start comparing it with King Lear and Hamlet is rather a step too far. I prefer to think of it as Shakespeare just going through a phase. Whatever the case, it is certainly Shakespeare’s bloodiest moment and is probably best seen before eating anything – especially if pastry is involved.
Production photos by Simon Kane
Titus Andronicus is available on the Globe Theatre website – click here
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