July 10 2014
Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earliest popular successes, is rarely done these days. The most recent production was Michael Fentiman’s at the RSC earlier last year about which, in part, I thought:
“This is a curious play, full of vengeance and murder and rape and betrayal – it makes the bloodbath that ends Hamlet look like a festival of joy. Many characters are unlikeable for the most part, although this aids concentration on and empathy for the ones who are. It has all of the trappings of high tragedy and should surely be able to be played as such; equally, though, it could also be played as a richly absurd, dark comedy. Perhaps more than anything, it would benefit from a Grand Guignol treatment…Fentiman seeks to have it both ways (High tragedy and black comedy) with the result that there is no coherence to the overall design and execution of the production. Wiser minds might attribute this, at least in part, to the fact that this is one of the “collaboration” plays (that is, not entirely the work of the Bard) but it is more likely that a surer, cleverer director would have found a way to achieve a thrilling coherence.”
I can’t say that every play she directs is thrilling or coherent, but Lucy Bailey’s remarkable revival of her 2006 production (both at the Globe Theatre) is outstandingly so.
William Dudley’s simple black set, crypt-like under the black velarium he has constructed over the stage and groundlings (to create a kind of Pantheon effect; there is an oculus too) and augmented by ramps which take the action onto the ground of the Globe where small towers on carts are pushed around and through the groundlings. The design transforms the space, electrifies it and makes it playful simultaneously. The fear, giggling, bemusement and annoyance of the groundlings as they are hustled and bustled and drenched in liquids of various levels of viscosity and vilneness enhances the play immeasurably.
Unlike many productions at the Globe, everything about the design is enhanced by the costumes (which balance classical with modern expertly) and the wonderful score provided by Django Bates. Mood is established easily by the aural and visual coherence, and when the blood begins to flow you know that Bailey has opted, quite rightly, for the Grand Guignol card.
The manner of playing reminded me of some mash-up of I Claudius and Games of Thrones; over the top, but steeped in blood, treachery, revenge, lust and honour, with richly drawn characters played full throttle, but with an honesty and through-line that made for whole, understandable characters. It’s hilarious and horrifying in turns – but there is a consistency to the approach which scores the bullseye. Bailey finds the moment each character breaks/changes and uses that as a transition point between honour and revenge, sanity and insanity, lust and despair – and not always in that order.
There are many moments which are difficult to watch, but that is the point. The ghastly impalement murder of Tamara’s midwife is absolutely horrific, matched by Titus’ hugging asphyxiation of his brutally disfigured daughter. Titus’ self hand amputation is expertly done too, as is the throat slitting of both Demetrius and Chiron. And the famous pie-eating scene, where Tamara is served a feast of her sons’ minced bodies, is truly ghastly fun.
Bailey’s greatest achievement, though, is the clarity of the story-telling. The verse is delivered crisply, cleanly and with great intensity of feeling when necessary. Some of the passages are beautiful, some lyrical, some ferocious, but there is never any doubt what is going on.
There is some outstanding acting too. Matthew Needham is inspired as Saturninus and plays him as a kind of Caligula figure, aloof, absurd but malevolent, cowardly and vicious. He is intensely amusing and casually violent; a joy to listen to and to watch. Dyfan Dwyfor, repeating the role he played in Stratford Upon Avon, Lucius, is even better than he was there. A true warrior, a loyal son and sibling, a sincere and truthful person, Dwyfor’s Lucius is precisely right in every way. As incumbent and future Emperor, each is glorious.
At first, William Houston’s Titus is slightly unfathomable but as the play progresses, the early work makes complete sense. This is a Titus who starts loyal and brimming with honour and duty. He kills Tamora’s eldest son not form spite but because that is what he is expected, required to do and without an Emperor to order him otherwise, he is unwilling to compromise his duty. The fatal mistake which starts this Titus’ King Lear-like descent into despair and insanity is not the slaughter of his captured enemy’s first born but his (again honour driven) decision to take the traditional course and appoint the sadistic Saturninus as Emperor ahead of the popular and sane Bassianus (a lovely Steffan Donnelly), despite the fact that Bassianus loves his only daughter, Lavinia.
Despite Saturninus’ excesses, his demand for Lavinia’s hand and then his marriage to Tamara, Titus holds firmly to his duty – even to the point of murdering one of his own sons to enforce Saturninus’ rule. And then, after Lavinia is raped and her hands amputated, he starts to lose his mind, engulfed in grief and horror – and revenge. Through all of this, Houston is terrific, raging and bellowing when necessary, fierce and towering, but also gentle, fatherly and utterly bereft. His wide-eyed frenzied appearance as the Chef is a remarkable moment; as is his paternal murder of Lavinia, gently rocking her to the release only death can provide.
In Houston’s hands and voice, and with this cast and Bailey’s direction, Titus Andronicus looks, sounds and feels like one of the truly great Shakespearean roles, right up there with Lear, Macbeth and Richards II and III. Revelatory.
It’s not all doom and gloom. David Shaw-Parker is truly hilarious as Bacchus, a vibrant drunk, fruity and quite unexpected. Needham reappears as a scene stealing, very funny Bird Seller whose sudden shocking death is all the more hideous because of the joy he has brought.
There is excellent “typical noble Roman” work from Ian Gelder (Titus’ brother Marcus) and Shaw-
Parker who doubles as the Tribune, Emilius. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is quite affecting as the abused victim of Tamora’s sons – the scene where she spells out the names of her attackers in sand is genuinely edgy and tense.
Indira Varma does not really pull off the anguish of a stricken mother pleading desperately for her son’s life but after that, when she is in vindictive Queen mode, she is startlingly effective. Her lustful scenes with her Moor lover, Aaron, are wonderfully excessive and her sense of duplicity intense. She deals with the digestion of her offspring with relish and repulsion. Her voice is slightly too thin, really, but she covers that pretty well.
As Aaron, Obi Abili is excellent. Crystal clear, with a beautiful voice full of shade and nuance, he is a delicious and malevolent villain. His scene with his newly born child (of Tamora) is perfectly done and he has a lascivious, mercurial and Frankie Howerd-like rapport with the audience.
The rest of the company are great – soldiers, sons, warriors, murderers all. Nicholas Karimi and Samuel Edward-Cook have a lot of fun as Tamora’s wild, stupid and vicious sons. Bryonie Pritchard is excellent as the Nurse and she makes her frightening murder thunder with pain and violation.
Terry King provides sharp, clever swordfighting that is both brutal and believable.
The audience is transported to another time – and feels, in ways that don’t always come naturally when in the audience at the Globe, a true sense of wonder and involvement at the production they are part of and watching.
Its great stuff and easily the best production Bailey has helmed. No wonder it had a return season. It’s a great production of a Shakespeare text that is not well known but if done like this often enough ought be one of the most popular.