Titus Andronicus is one of my favourite works of Shakespeare. The reason why can be encapsulated in this fact: apparently, five people fainted watching the original play. Titus Andronicus is probably the goriest of Shakespeare’s works, definitely boasting the highest named character death count. It’s Shakespeare’s only Roman play that isn’t derived from history (although it owes a lot to Ovid’s Metamorphosis), describing the plight of Titus, a war hero who turns down the people’s call that he should be made emperor, while the ruler who takes his place – with a queen who is his worst enemy – proceeds to wreak revenge in what quickly becomes a twisted game. Yet despite all this, I’ve never seen quite such a hilarious tragedy.
Lucy Bailey’s production has been revived following the 2006 run that received rapturous reviews, and with good reason. She manages to balance the horror of Titus’s story with an inflection of hilarity that could only be achieved in the Globe Theatre space. The actors interact with and mill amongst the groundlings, to the point that it could easily have been a promenade performance. Bailey’s direction recreates processions through the streets of Rome by taking influence from the pageant theatre form, which involved parading the performance through the streets on a cart. For the purposes of all this movement, designer William Dudley has created platforms that are wheeled through the audience – particularly useful tools when the actors are addressing a speech to the people of Rome. It is effective staging in harmony with the dialogue, although this way of ‘marking the moment’ does sometimes drag.
There are some incredible performances: Obi Abili commands the stage as a charismatic and conniving Aaron. Indira Varma’s Tamora is a sexy and manipulative caricature of a woman who wears the trousers in the relationship, while Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Lavinia is endearingly doll-like and played with superb physicality. David Shaw-Parker and Steffan Donnelly deserve mentions purely for managing to get so many laughs in their smaller roles. Of course, the highest accolade has to go to William Houston in the role of Titus. He has fun with the role, which initially takes some getting used to: the way in which he humanises a war hero, a character so far apart from us, takes some adjusting to. However, this just fuels his depiction of a man racked with a pain so acute, it takes him to the brink of madness.
The way in which the creative team have managed to stage the violence, in particular Lavinia’s notorious scene, is to be applauded. They have tackled it with a surprising degree of realism, good enough to convince a contemporary audience that’s become used to Hollywood gore. There are several moments that make your skin crawl.
Finally, it’s rare the final curtain call gets a mention, but I feel that it should be admired as a brilliantly cathartic way to round off a play that otherwise might make some stomachs turn.
Titus Andronicus plays at Shakespeare’s Globe until 13 July. For tickets and more information see the Shakespeare’s Globe website. Photo by Simon Kane.