Yesterday I went to see Titus Andronicus at the Globe with an old friend. I must admit, Titus isn’t a show I ever particularly wanted to see. I knew the plot slightly from my long-held enthusiasm for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and from my friend Tom’s PhD on the play–he’s trying to work out how much, if any, was written by George Peele. As it turned out my friend Georgina had also done her MA thesis on it, so I basically felt that I already knew as much about Titus as I needed to know. (Basic synopsis: someone makes someone else unhappy. Lots of people kill each other. Some of them end up in a pie. More people die. The end.)
And indeed, on reflection, Titus is a play that you withstand rather than enjoy. I don’t mean that it’s a bad production, just a very difficult one to watch. The portrayal of violence in this production is very raw and realistic, and there’s certainly no lack of source material on that front. In the programme notes director Lucy Bailey said she felt it was important to keep this production uncompromising in its realistic portrayals of violence as we can no longer be moved by ritualized or stylized depictions of it because of the increasingly lifelike portrayals of violence onscreen.
The programme also notes that last time the play was staged at the Globe by the same director some of the audience found it an “overwhelming experience.” I assume that by this they mean that people were fainting all over the place, because that’s certainly what happened last night. At the end of the night four people had passed out and had to be removed from the auditorium. One person sat down on the ground for a while but got up when she was told off by the steward, but at the interval I heard her say she wasn’t able to stand anymore, so we decided to count her as half a fainter. When I read that the first known run of Titus Andronicus was stalled by an outbreak of plague which closed all the London theatres, I nudged Georgina and we decided that the play was decidedly cursed by plagues, illnesses and general malaise.
Remarkably considering my predilection for growing lightheaded at any available opportunity, I was among those stalwart groundlings who managed to remain upright during the play. There were two principal reasons for this, I think: the first is that the longer I stood the more determined I became to get through to the end without the seemingly tireless stewards having to roll out the wheelchair. There was a grim solidarity among us groundlings who managed to make it through to the final scene without ending up horizontal. The second reason I remained firmly perpendicular to the ground was that I had already disgraced myself by spilling my pint everywhere twice–once at the bar when I tried to get it from a glass into a plastic cup and managed to cause a localized beer-cano, and again when I tried to get my gloves on outside and managed to spill it all over my bag. No way was I going to allow myself to fall over after such ignominy.
One of the reasons that I don’t like standing in a crowd is that I really hate being jostled. As a tall person, no matter where you stand there is always an annoyed short person somewhere in your vicinity, a person whose view you’re inadvertently blocking and who, you can see in their eyes, is swearing eternal vengeance upon you. This being Britain, usually this means a lot of passive-aggressive muttering and jostling. Fortunately in this production quite a bit of the action takes place on rolling platforms that are wheeled through the crowd by fierce Roman soldiers, shouting at people to move and bullying them aside. So basically even though all the short people managed to get quite a good view at some point or another, this crowd was extra-jostly.
I can’t say I’m that fond of the rolling platforms, partly because of the aforementioned jostling but largely because they clank and rattle so much, especially when nobody is standing on them while they’re being moved about. Between that and people passing out left and right, there are definitely some speeches I missed. I do love the other design elements, though. The stage is completely enveloped by black cloth to very striking effect. Designer William Dudley also installed a velarium in the open air above the stage but I imagine this is more effective in an afternoon production; in the evening the sky gets dark so quickly that it’s not really noticeable. Walking into the theatre the air is heavy with incense and it seems full of portents of the events to come.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Lavinia is excellent and challenging. As I already said, the director didn’t shy away from a brutal depiction of violence, including the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. The scene where her uncle discovers her bloodied, lacking her hands and her tongue is very difficult to watch. Almost as difficult is Lavinia’s suffering as her father says “I can interpret all her martyr’d signs” and vows to learn how to communicate with her–for it is clear, in this production at least, that rather than communicating with her Titus is projecting his own thoughts and desires onto her. This is as much a silencing of her will and agency as a person as was the removal of her tongue and hands.
The play ends badly for poor old Lavinia, of course, shortly after Titus asks the young, recently crowned emperor Saturninus if it is right for a father to slay his daughter if she has been “enforced, stain’d, and deflower’d?” Saturninus agrees that he should, because “the girl should not survive her shame/And by her presence still renew his sorrows.” Saturninus is then horrified to see Titus act on this very sentiment in front of him. Quite why the shame should be the girl’s rather than the enforcer, stainer, and deflowerer’s is a question that neither Saturninus nor Titus think to ask themselves before the deed is done and the girl is dead. She doesn’t get much joy in life, does Lavinia. Spencer-Longhurst’s performance is extraordinarily expressive though she spends much of the play mute. I actually feel this is her play far more than Titus’s, but that might be because everyone keeps passing out rather distractingly during William Houston’s big moments.
Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Indira Varma) is also especially mesmerizing. I find it hard to take my eyes off her whenever she’s onstage. Her sons Demetrius (Samuel Edward-Cook) and Chiron (Brian Martin) are every bit the kind of loutish, cult-of-masculinity lads that I find in equal parts intimidating and contemptible–which is exactly what they’re supposed to be, I suppose. Matthew Needham’s petulant imperiousness as newly crowned emperor Saturninus has a louche, enjoyably despicable quality. (Plus, ooh-er, he’s a looker, that one.) The usual Marcus Andronicus was off sick with laryngitis so he was replaced at the very last minute by Martin Turner, who gave a stellar and very well-received performance bearing script in hand. Frankly I found the presence of that script very grounding; it helped me to remember that the violence wasn’t real and to maintain a healthy distance from the gory bits. Relieving the tension somewhat, David Shaw-Parker plays a lovable scamp of a Bacchus, spilling wine over the crowd and goading people to drink during the interval. I found his character’s death as shocking as any of the major ones, because at least I expected all the main characters to kick the bucket in various nasty ways. Nobody anticipates the humanizing character getting killed off all of a sudden like that. And finally Obi Abili’s Aaron: so many of Shakespeare’s villains, especially those emphasizing otherness and an outsider quality like Caliban or Shylock, could be played as cardboard cutouts of monstrosity for the sheer sake of it. This Aaron is all the more monstrous for the charm, liveliness and depth that Abili brings to the role.
Just before the final bow at every show in the Globe (well, every one that I’ve been to) the cast all get together and do a merry little dance. I think the idea is that it gives everyone a chance to see the cast in a sort of “Look, everyone’s still alive! We didn’t mean it!” mode and for the audience to jolly up before rejoining the outside world. In a show like Titus you can see that it gives the company a chance to leave the characters behind and breathe a little more naturally before finishing. I confess I’ve never really liked this tradition: I want to absorb what I just saw, to sift through all the pieces again and mourn for the characters in my own time. I’d rather end on a sober note and let the feelings of the play linger.
To that end, Georgina and I repaired to the Swan (Globe Theatre’s house bar) after the show. After a while discussing Important Shakespearean Themes, all of a sudden we heard divers alarums from the other end of the bar: glass breaking, a woman shrieking, people shouting “Leave off! It’s not worth it!” and other such things. I don’t know exactly what happened but my best guess is that the violence in Titus so incited some of the patrons that they became irascible and started an honest-to-goodness barfight. So I got to ruminate on the show’s motifs much more vividly than I expected. And in the end, the curse of Titus strikes us all in different ways: I woke up this morning with a nosebleed. I always think theatre is better when it leaves you with a lasting impression. Not generally so lasting that it makes you bleed, but in this case, it was just about worth it.