July 4, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

Titus Andronicus @ Shakespeare’s Globe

As with the 2006 original production, the current revival of Lucy Bailey’s Titus Andronicus has been making headlines for its experiential elements rather than for the performance itself. Specifically, yet again, the audience has been fainting in droves. There’s a culture of expectation around the fainting for this production fuelled by the media and Twittersphere, which reminds me creepily of a ‘movement of the Spirit’ when I was 11 years old and my church was having an uncharacteristically evangelical phase, where people would turn up for meetings expecting to find themselves speaking in tongues, fainting and laughing hysterically – and lo and behold, the ‘spontaneous’ experiences happened exactly on cue. Titus is so gruesome it’ll make you faint, runs the buzz, and so the production sells on anecdotage rather than critical discussion.

Speaking only for myself, I suspect the fainting in fact had very little to do with the (not unusually graphic) stage violence. Designer William Dudley had not only wrapped the entire tiring house and pillars in black to signify tragedy, but also draped heavy black strip banners over the roof of the Globe. On the hottest and stillest day of the year so far, and with two bowls of incense burning throughout as well as constant smoke effects, the atmosphere was stifling and the air trapped beneath the banners. Add to that an unusually drunk Globe audience (including at least two extraordinarily inappropriate hecklers) and I’m surprised that so many of the audience kept their feet – even in the cushioned Gentlemen’s’ Room, I found myself light-headed.

This was exacerbated further by an inventive use of space that made huge demands on the audience. Two large wheeled platforms moved constantly around the pit, groundlings having to scarper at the swordpoints of the soldiers who pushed them. These platforms initially acted as podiums for Matthew Needham’s Saturninus and Steffan Donnelly’s Bassianus as they rallied troops in their favour, but served also as a makeshift gibbet for Obi Abili’s Aaron, platforms for noisy bacchanals characterising the masculine deprivation of Saturninus’ court (with the soldiers chanting football slogans as they shoved groundlings out of their way) and a quiet study for Titus in the play’s concluding movement. These mobile stages demanded an active and anxious audience, destabilising constantly the terms of engagement.

While this production went out of its way, then, to draw attention to experience and endurance, it did so with its tongue firmly in its cheek. David Shaw-Barker played the interpolated character Bacchus who threw his drink over the audience, shouted obscenities and wound up the crowd in exuberance until, during Saturninus’ festivities, he was beaten and carried off (a sudden brutality matched by that experienced by the Bird Seller, whose neck was snapped suddenly after he delivered his message). But perhaps most surprisingly, William Houston played Titus himself as something of a comedian. His recourse was not to deep, stoic declamation but to incredulous sarcasm delivered in a high register. Right from the start, Titus pointed out absurdities (such as the defiance of his sons) with a comic detachment, becoming increasingly absurdist until his waltz with the swaddled Lavinia while dressed in full chef’s outfit seemed the most natural thing in the world.

Against the humour was set a fair amount of Roman austerity. Titus’ sons wore full Roman uniform, and their laments and chants established the more formal tone against which their father railed. Ian Gelder’s Marcus, too, played his part entirely straight, countering his more unpredictable brother. Dyfan Dwyfor made for a brooding, formidable Lucius, quick to anger and a threat in battle. He became, in the last scene, the human face of the tragedy, embracing his son and then cradling his sister’s body, reacting with decorum but visible emotion to the destruction of his his house. But the serious nature of the younger Romans also served to balance the absurdities of Titus, as when attempting to fire off arrows with his feet or making scary noises at the dangling Chiron and Demetrius.

Abili’s Aaron straddled the lines between humour and horror most effectively. As is regular at the Globe, his direct address became a source of laughter, particularly as he cackled over his plans, and his line ‘Villain, I have DONE thy mother’ brought the house down with a spontaneous ovation. His offhand delivery became even funnier as he was introduced to his baby boy, first reacting with comic surprise and then adopting a ridiculous baby voice as he spoke to his son. Yet when the laughter stopped, his strong voice and confident presence brought authority to his actions. His administration of a steel enema to the nurse with his sword made for the goriest death, and his ‘confessions’ to Lucius were delivered in full sincerity, the adulation of his own heinous crimes no longer amusing. When he was carried off to execution over the heads of the crowd, he continued ranting and screaming at full volume until he disappeared from the theatre. His presence and working of the audience fitted well, inducting the audience into pleasurable complicity that finally turned nasty.

The nurse’s death was only one of the moments of extreme violence made the more vivid by its occurrence within feet of the audience. The key moment for people absenting themselves from the theatre was, inevitably, the appearance of Lavinia, dressed in bloodied rags and spitting blood. Yet it was her subsequent appearance to her father, as she writhed and wept while Titus clutched her, that most moved. Flora Spencer-Longhurst captured the frustration of a character newly unable to express herself, thrashing and flailing in desperation. By the second half she was wrapped in tight, white bandages from head to foot, moving slowly and quietly. Frustratingly a pillar prevented me from seeing the detail of her death, but she sat on her father’s knee and embraced him at length. It was some time before Saturninus and Tamora realised that the girl was dying, representing on stage the horror of finding oneself in immediate proximity to violence to which Bailey had hitherto subjected the audience.

As is usual for Bailey’s productions, there was an ongoing critique of masculine performativity, with the ensemble of obnoxious, shouting, violent soldiers ever-present, and Lucius’ rule in the closing moments was ominously presented in the same atmosphere of thoughtless celebration as Saturninus had received earlier. Samuel Edward-Cook and Brian Martin as Demetrius and Chiron further embodied this, their brotherly squabbles becoming quickly brutal as they stamped on one another’s throats, grabbed each other by the balls and threw Lavinia between them. Yet despite being played much older than in the recent RSC production, the overriding impression was of them as boys, cowed by Aaron and shuffling awkwardly in the Chinese-style masks and platform shoes donned for their disguises as Murder and Rape. Conversely, and disappointingly, Tamora (Indira Varma) made relatively little impression, her own plottings rather dwarfed by the far more emphatically drawn critique of male violence.

Unlike most productions of this play that I’ve seen, the final flurry of violence was played reasonably straight, even if my view of the details was too obscured to comment here. As throughout, it hung on Houston’s unhinged performance, skipping up and down while doling up portions of comically blood-red pie. But the horror with which Lavinia’s death was treated on stage was followed by a carefully paced sequence of stabbings and punches that granted each a moment of climactic severity rather than reducing them to slapstick, and the flurry of activity that followed realised the significance of the coup. As distant thunder rolled, I couldn’t help but feel that the amount of coverage given to the anecdotes and controversies of the experiential elements of this production do it a disservice. This was a thoughtful, meticulous version of the play that understood the import of its events as more than splatter. A severe production of a severe play.

Posted in Theatre review