Assumed to have been written around 1593/94, 'Titus Andronicus' has to be the bloodiest play Shakespeare penned. In fact, it has so many murders and atrocities that for some time critics found it hard to believe that it was even written by Shakespeare in the first place. And though it was apparently a hit when first performed for Elizabethan audiences, it lost favour for centuries because it was considered too bloody to be performed. Thankfully, events took a revivalist turn in the mid-twentieth century, and 'Titus Andronicus' is now produced more regularly.
One question which always used to beg an answer from any production of 'Titus Andronicus' was: how many people would walk out during the course of the play? Because the sheer volume of blood which often flows across the stage, the nature of the atrocities and the staggering number of characters brutally killed or mutilated, often overwhelms those with weaker constitutions, and the play has an unrivalled reputation for causing people to faint. For example, the first time I saw the play more than half the audience did not return for the second half, and a substantial number seemed decidedly ill during the interval, and sought comfort in medicinal quantities of brandy and other recuperative beverages!
Seemingly, times have changed. Because on my speculative headcount for this production, there were few people who couldn't face returning to the auditorium after the interval, and, as far as I could tell, no-one 'walked' or 'keeled over' into unconscious oblivion during the performance. True, Director Lucy Bailey and her team haven't gone 'overboard' on the gore and blood, but there was enough in evidence to be unsettling, and I detected a few gasps from the seats behind me during some of the more gory scenes. On the whole though, it looks like we're becoming immune to horror, possibly through being subjected to regular visions of gut-wrenching atrocities on TV news reports, documentaries and the like. Or perhaps present-day audiences have a new-found relish for gore more like that of their Elizabethan counterparts. Whatever the case, the audience for this production braved the bloodshed admirably, and seemed to enjoy the production immensely.
The play focuses on Roman general, Titus Andronicus, who returns to Rome in triumph after giving the Goths a sound thrashing after a prolonged campaign. He's already lost 21 of his sons in battles, and is pretty worn out having spent some 40 years in the field (or, indeed, having produced at least 25 progeny). But his triumphs set him up as number one candidate for the vacant post of Emperor that's currently being contested by two brothers, Saturninus and Bassianus. Titus, though, declines the offer of the most powerful position in the known world, and throws his immense influence behind Saturninus, who's duly installed.
Titus gives the new Emperor his captive Goths - Tamora, Queen of the Goths; her lover Aaron the Moor; and two of Tamora's sons - but not before he's killed Tamora's eldest son in retribution for his own losses. This ignites a consuming revenge in Tamora who swears to wipe out the Andronici family. Eagerly assisted by her lover, the brutally bloodthirsty and immoral Moor, her sons rape Titus's daughter, Lavinia, cutting out her tongue and lopping off her hands to boot. And her husband Bassianus is also killed along with two of Titus's three remaining sons.
Beside himself with grief, and appearing mad to those around him, Titus sees a chance for revenge and achieves it in cannibalistic style right at the end of the play, during a final quick-fire flourish of a bloodbath.
William Dudley's doom-laden design is bleak and singularly black. All the colourful ornamentation of the Globe's stage has been obscured with black swathing, and the open space in the roof above the yard has had an awning, or velarium, installed similar to the kind employed at the Coliseum in Rome, lending an eerily oppressive and funereal atmosphere to the arena-like space. The overall design concept is reminiscent of Fellini's film 'Satyricon' (1969) which provided a grotesque glimpse of a depraved Rome imploding on excess and decadence. The atmosphere is darkened further with smoke drifting across the stage, together with doleful music and sound effects from an unusual array of musical instruments including drums, bagpipes, and some peculiar looking horns. The overall impact of the design is both sombre and gloomy, introducing a morally decaying Rome that bears little resemblance to the classical and elegant dignity we're more accustomed to.
Douglas Hodge provides a fine, if slightly understated, Titus who, though on the brink of insanity, hangs on to his faculties just long enough to achieve some semblance of revenge. It's a substantial and quietly authoritative performance ably matched by the conniving, revenge-driven Tamora, played by Geraldine Alexander. And there's equally fine playing from Shaun Parkes as the sly and conniving Aaron the Moor, Richard O'Callaghan as Titus's brother, and Tamora's tattooed sons, played by Richard Riddell and Sam Alexander. I also enjoyed Patrick Moy who brought a suitably 'spoilt brat' quality to the role of Saturninus.
For me, 'Titus Andronicus is more akin to pantomime than high drama, more comedy than tragedy, because everything is so completely 'over the top'. For example, the sheer number of people who get killed - some arbitrarily and inexplicably such as Titus's sons Mutius, the nurse and the messenger - is almost laughable in itself. And the final, cataclysmic scene with Titus dressed as a baker is simply melodramatic pantomime in all but name. But of course, 'Titus Andronicus' can be read quite differently. No doubt there are those for whom the play has echoes of many recent events, or for whom the play is high drama, albeit on an overwhelmingly horrific scale. Whatever your view, this finely-honed, atmospherically eerie production allows you to interpret the play in whatever way you choose, and will be remembered for giving us a sombre, if not dismal view of a Rome fading into abject and bloodthirsty in-fighting and decay.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Intriguing production... the production and principal actors lack the psychological subtlety and rigour Bailey's inventive staging leads you to expect. " PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Exhilarating...probably the best production I've seen at Shakespeare's Globe in the 10 years of its existence." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Shatteringly powerful and inventive production." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "It’s gripping, but it lacks compassion."
Production photos by John Tramper