Titus Andronicus

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Globe

From 24 April 2014 to 14 July 2014

Review by Howard Loxton

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An earlier version of this production was presented with success at the Globe in 2006. Now recast, it is revived by its director Lucy Bailey uses the same striking design by her partner William Dudley which hides the elaborate frontage of the tiring house and swathes the heaven’s supporting pillars in black fabric

Above the yard are stretched awnings like the velarium that shaded the spectators in Roman arenas, appropriately for a Roman play as cruelly savage as any Colosseum spectacle.

Titus Andronicus, Roman general returning victorious with the Goth queen and her sons as prisoners, turns down the role of Emperor and gives his support to Saturninus, the eldest of the preceding emperor’s two sons, and thereby sets in motion a succession of calamities for himself and his family.

Titus is a man who puts the state above himself. He declares that to serve Rome, 22 of his sons have died. Before the play has ended, this prolific father has lost three more sons and a daughter, while she, raped, has had her tongue cut out and hands chopped off and he has had his own left hand hacked off in a vain effort to appease the Emperor.

With smoke rising from incense bowls at the rear of the stage, the Globe becomes a temple splashed with blood piling horror on horror. Bailey does not hesitate to show it in graphic detail but this is far from just being a gore-fest. The horrors are taken very seriously but Bailey also brings out the humour in the play.

Instead of laughs that come as a way of dealing with terror (as so often happens with a cinema horror movie audience), the comic elements are interwoven relief that heightens the effect of the bloodletting as well as being respite from it.

That doesn’t mean there are not moments where spectators share a sardonic smile with Titus as in the otherwise too gruesome scene when he feeds the Emperor’s consort, his former prisoner the Goth Queen Tamora, with her sons baked in a pie.

David Shaw-Parker pops up all over the place as a comic alcoholic Roman scattering his wine over everyone—though, like almost everyone, he gets his throat slit.

No apologies if this reads like a spoiler. You should know what you are in for, not be among those who have left because they could not stomach it (ill-chosen phrase that perhaps in the context).

And this is a fine production, well worth seeing, that brings the theatre alive with triumphal processions through the yard and orations from towers manoeuvred among the groundlings, flaming torches, drums and strange trumpets and a horn-blowing hunt through the audience.

The tattooed Goths are led by Indira Varma’s Tamora and her sons Demetrius (Samuel Edward-Cook) and Chiron (Brian Martin) who ravish Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), all pristine and proper until she is mutilated, and Obi Abili plays Tamora’s black paramour Aaron with a charm that belies his malignant nature.

Matthew Needham makes new Emperor Saturninus just a little deranged, though you’d hardly notice it in this context were not his younger brother Bassianus such a nice guy.

Then there are the Andronicae. Respectable Marcus (Ian Gelder and other kinsmen and Titus’s sons: Mutius (Jamie Wilkie) killed by his father for speaking out of turn, eldest sons Lucius (Dyfan Dwyfor) and Martius (Jake Mann) and Quintus (Paul Ham), both executed for a murder of which they are innocent—all excellent performances.

But at the centre of everything is William Houston’s Titus Andronicus. This is a magnificent performance. Houston is an actor of presence with a quirk to his voice that compels attention. Looked at in the cold light of reason, this blinkered patriot seems a fool but Houston gives him tragic stature his mind becoming unstable as goes on enduring.

Even a man who can see his big brood die for the state with pride and composure does have a cracking point.