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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
TITUS ANDRONICUS
at Shakespeare's Globe

MURDER WITH A SHRUG
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Flora Spencer-Longhurst/ Ph: Simon Kane

Director Lucy Bailey has revived her sensational 2006 Globe production of Titus Andronicus – a bloody and barbarian revenge play, where audience members in the yard have been fainting away all summer long. Even people in the galleries have been thudding to the floor, too.

It’s not just the goriness of the play doing this. The Globe itself is always slightly airless, despite being right by the Thames, due to the cockpit atmosphere. And for Titus, designer William Dudley has filled the opening to the sky with a canopy and the yard itself with smoke and torches.

Rome is indeed a wilderness of tigers, with slaves banging on mobile platforms with steel sticks, thunder sheets rattling off stage and a Roman drunk called Bacchus (an invented character) baiting the audience even before Titus himself enters from the wars on a vicious-looking chariot, to the sound of drums and trumpets, with a cargo of prisoners and his dead sons in their coffins.

The whole mood is tense and enervating, and it’s only the crescendo of black humour that saves us all from passing out, I reckon, as limbs are mutilated, throats cut (blood collected in steel bowls), and minced corpses served in a pâté pie to their own mother by a madcap chef.

Why does he laugh, Timon asks himself? Because he has no more tears, and it’s as if we, too, are so inured against the evils of the world that nothing can strike us as unwatchable. We squirm, and then we shrug. This is why Titus, in many ways a dry early run for King Lear, is so brilliant (there’s also some really wonderful poetry); it takes us to the extreme of our emotional experience and tests our nerve.

William Houston as Titus gauges this exactly right, presenting a grizzled old warrior with a manic glint in his eye and switching from grief and surprise to dangerous, “pretend” madness with such rapidity that in the end he’s immune to feeling as well as reason. The most achingly poignant moment in the play is the “mercy” killing of his foully abused daughter Lavinia, so as to kill her shame, too.

Titus’ prisoners include Indira Varma’s beautiful Tamora, Queen of the Goths – the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest Tamora, Katy Stephens, was more of a regal tramp, clad in black leather and nail varnish – and her sons. Things get complicated when Titus falls for Tamora, expediently betrothed to the new emperor, Bassianus (Steffan Donnelly scores a great double with this role and the comic bird seller later on), and her boys decide to “deal with” Lavinia.

This gruesome twosome, Demetrius and Chiron, played with gloriously indecent relish by Samuel Edward-Cook and Brian Martin, triggers the tit-for-tat killings that characterise sectarian conflicts from Belfast to the Middle East, and watching them forms a sort of release valve for the audience. If only such horrors could happen only on the stage.

And emerging centrally is the “blackamoor” Aaron (Obi Abili), lover of Tamora, a manipulating agent for her revenge, and the father of a baby who seems to offer him a glimmer of redemption. No such luck, of course, and even less for the corrupt Goths, who are subsumed by their own criminality and the advance of a new Roman army, here represented by a band of frightening tattooed thugs.

The audience – those still standing or sitting upright – laps this up with glee and dismay. It’s this fusion of play’s meaning and spectators’ response that is so special at the Globe. But we also enjoy performances that would grace any major stage: Ian Gelder’s Marcus Andronicus, Titus’s emollient brother, who has some of the play’s best speeches; Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s lovely Lavinia, reduced to a blood-soaked, tongue-less torso with bandaged stumps for hands; and Matthew Needham’s casually amoral Saturninus, the dead emperor’s son and Titus’s unnatural nemesis.

 


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