by William Shakespeare
Directed by Lucy Bailey
The Globe Theatre, London
Sunday 4th May 2014, 13.00
Before it starts: Black awnings cover the pit
Shakespeare’s slasher play. The Globe are reviving the Lucy Bailey spectacularly brutal 2006 production, the one where people fainted, or had to be led out in shock and horror. It’s still happening. Five the other night, or press night. The Independent reviewer herself fainted. The Mail online reported it with five of the bloodiest pictures of the raped and mutilated Lavinia, tongue cut out so she cannot report the rape, hands chopped off so she can’t sign it or write it down. They need five photos, not, you understand out of prurience or to sell their news feed, but because you really do need five shots from different angles to hammer the point across. I would have thought that the tongue removal and bloody stumps would have kind of indicated that something nasty had happened to her, rape or no. Perhaps the perpetrators thought, ‘Well, at least they won’t know we raped her!’ Apparently they were right, as when he finds out she was raped as well as losing her tongue and hands, Titus is shamed and horrified. In the second part Lavinia traces the names of her rapists with a broom handle held in her mouth and between her stumps. No one thought of listing the possible suspects and saying,’Nod when I mention the right ones.’ But as the Mail so wisely and originally points out, bad things do happen to good people on a daily basis.
Lucius (Dyfan Dwyfor), Titus (William Houston), Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst)
I have to say, it’s exactly the sort of thing I avoid like the plague in the cinema or DVD, and I suppose a snobbish, ‘Ah, but it’s Shakespeare …’ excused this one, though really we chose it purely and simply because Lucy Bailey directed it. And it’s a notable and much-talked about production. It’s also a first-time Shakespeare for me, and while I was one of the daft few who actually did read “The Complete Works” when casually instructed to do so by a drama lecturer, that was a long time ago, and I guess Titus would have been in speed-read mode. All I remember is “it’s the one with cannibalism.” I did know that while set in classical times, it’s not a history, and that like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it appears to be an original rather than a borrowed storyline. Just the two of them. It was a big hit in its day, 1593, too, an early success.
It’s funny. The BBC News warns you three times a night that there might be flash photography in the next news clip. The Globe don’t warn about fainting. Perhaps they assume that theatre audiences have an idea of what they’re in for. We saw two faint from where we were when Lavinia appeared with her bleeding stumps, shaking all over with post-traumatic shock. At least five left the theatre just a little later when the heads of Titus’s sons were dropped down next to her in blood-soaked muslin bags. It is a question of what to expect though. I was expecting that. The murder of the nurse, pushed face forward with a sword shoved up her vagina from behind, and blood spurting from her mouth was even more horrific because I wasn’t expecting that one at all. Several left at that point. Yes, it is eleven on the ten point scale for gore and horror and sheer downright nastiness.
Titus arrives (think this is 2006 production)
It is also a totally brilliant production. The Globe stage is draped in black, there are black awnings over the whole open air pit. More use is made of the whole physical space than I would have believed possible. There are two wheeled platforms, 12 feet or more high, pushed around the pit area and used for speeches. Black or white confetti drifts down from the balconies. Heady clouds of incense may contribute to the fainting. The pit audience, the standing groundlings, are pushed back and forth by the Roman and Goth soldiers. Triumphal parades enter through the pit and parade around it, pushing the audience aside. Costumes are incredible. Tattoos are incredible.The dead body of Bassianus is tossed out into the audience onto a rapidly unfurled black net. Titus’s sons are trapped on the same net. Titus launches himself flat out into space to be caught by three soldiers standing in the pit. A lot of action takes place in the pit.
Saturninus (Matthew Needham) on platform in the Pit.
On 4th May, Ian Gelder, playing Marcus Andronicus, the brother of Titus was off sick. The part had to be read in by Martin Turner, and it really did seem last minute – he had to read entirely rather than glance at the script as a reminder. That may have reduced the faint count, because Marcus is talking throughout while Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) trembles and quivers with the horror of her injuries. I reckon that his presence with the book, though reading well, emphasized the fiction aspect, thus reducing the horror. I would say that his first speech to the Romans would have worked if it had been intentionally read from a scroll, as formal speeches might be. Pasting beige paper to a suitable scroll looks better than a wad of A4 paper. But it was an unenviable task, well-performed, and well-introduced by David Shaw-Parker as Bacchus before the play started.
Tamara (Indira Varma) pleads for her son’s life
Every part was superb. We noticed the individuals playing Roman soldiers and later Goths never stopped performing facially and physically as they moved stuff around. William Houston was an animal-like and meatily savage Titus. We know he’s twitching mad and violent from the outset. Even when Saturninus, creepily played by Matthew Needham, suggests celebrating his nuptials to Tamara, Titus reckons the best celebration would be slaughtering panthers and other endangered species. Tamara, the treacherous Queen of the Goths, who marries Saturninus, was lithely sexy as well as evil (Indira Varma). Her psychotic rapist sons Demetrius (Samuel Edward-Cook) and Chiron (Brian Martin) were a pair of hyped up brutal Goths if you ever saw two. Flora Spencer-Longhurst was an affecting Lavinia, a stunning performance which must have been physically demanding to the highest degree.
It’s one play where directors can’t be colour blind on casting, because Aaron the Moor begetting a black child by Tamara is a major plot hinge. Aaron has to be black, which really means nobody else can be African in appearance, because of the number of 16th century lines about colour.
Saturninus (Matthew Needham), Titus (William Houston), Tamora (Indira Varma) 2014
One thing struck me. The Globe keyrings and souvenirs show a pie with “baked in a pie” which looks satisfyingly like Desperate Dan’s cow pie with bits sticking out. That’s what Titus, gibbering and laughing in a chef’s hat is to serve to Tamara and the Emperor, with the meat content being Demetrius and Chiron. You really can see detail at The Globe and it looked as if they were consuming a quiche. Real murderers don’t eat quiche. I don’t want to add to the privations of the cast, but you really expect a pie crust and lumps of meat dripping with gravy. No, I couldn’t eat cold steak and kidney pud either, but say falafels in a tomato sauce, or lumps of aubergine offer a vegetarian option which would look disgusting.
There are so many touches … the men playing grotesque brazen horns all over the audience as the hunt starts, the triumphal parade bearing Titus in on a litter, followed by the coffins of two sons, the weird horns and elongated primitive trumpets (are they ‘navelur’ as mentioned in the programme?), the use of drums, electronic noises as Titus goes into a twisted trance … in direction and production terms you won’t see anything more spectacular. The acting is fabulous … the only thing I would say is that Obi Abili’s wonderful portrayal of Aaron could do with a little more volume on his first long speech to match the rest of the cast. Terrific then. The play, for a first time Shakespeare, is transparent too as a narrative. It is though, a very chilling and inherently vile piece of drama. But as the Mail pointed out, it is all going on in Syria right now as it is performed in London. All of the blood feuds, and horror and incipient revenge cycles.
I’m convinced there’s an arsehole in a police helicopter who impresses passengers by pointing out landmarks, “Ooh, look. That’s the Globe. There’ll be something on now. Let’s go and take a closer look.”