Reviewers typically award shows star ratings, usually out of five, but there's another scale we also need to employ in writing about the Globe's revival of its bloodily gruesome 2006 production of Titus Andronicus. That's to count not just the number of victims who are brutally murdered or disfigured onstage, but how many of the audience faint or have to be helped out of the auditorium as it unfolds. I counted at least seven on the night I saw it (and heard an eighth collapse in the gallery above the one I was seated in). I didn't count those who left the auditorium on their own steam, but nevertheless were compelled to stumble out early.
Even critics are not immune. My colleague from The Independent, who saw it a few nights before I did, wrote afterwards: "A confession: I fainted. I'm not alone: audiences are dropping like flies.... So I can't vouch for Act III, scene ii - but if it's anything like the rest of this vivaciously staged, blackly comic and dizzyingly unrestrained production, it was probably exceptional."
The visceral impact of this show has not been over-rated. There's a fashion nowadays for what's called 'immersive theatre', the sort that spills beyond the stage and has the audience interacting with the actors. There's no more greater immersive theatre space in London than the Globe, where the audience are integral players in the action -- we even share the same light as the actors. But Lucy Bailey's urgent, thrilling production of this relatively rarely-seen play pushes audience and actors into a complex complicity; fainting is just one extreme reaction, but the show also inspires a rich concentration that I've seldom seen or felt here.
That's partly because the show is brought up so close to us all; it teams around the groundlings and across the yard, keeping them in a state of constant anticipation (and movement, too, to get out of the way of the actors). The production is strong on the blood but also the sweat and tears of this play that mines the darkest emotions of revenge that propel William Houston in the title role and Indira Varma as Tamora, Queen of the Goths whom he defeats and takes prisoner.
Though Houston can be distractingly mannered in both speech and movement, there's otherwise an authenticity to this production's rage and despair that is heartfelt. It is also especially heartbreaking in Flora Spencer-Longhurst's Lavinia, Titus's daughter who loses both her hands and tongue after a brutal rape by Tamora's sons.
It may not be for the weak-hearted, but it is otherwise unmissable.
"... pulls no punches and often achieves a dramatic power that makes the stomach churn and the hands sweat. But amazingly the play also makes you laugh."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"It is heady, oppressive. But groundlings, barraged by testosterone-pumped warriors and grandstanding politicians, are still swept up in the action - just don’t stand too close if you’re feeling light-headed…"
Holly Williams for The Independent
"The programme tells us that the cruelty is keenly relevant to the 21st century. I’m not entirely sure about that, but there is always a rarity value in seeing this mad bloodbath, even if its excesses rob it of much sense of true tragedy."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"... the lively production is more accomplished than individual performances, too many of which underwhelm."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard